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The New York Times’s Trump-bashing op-ed from a senior Trump official, explained

A “senior official in the Trump administration” claims that even Cabinet members think the president is reckless and amoral.

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Apparently President Donald Trump is right: There really is a “deep state” of top government officials conspiring to thwart his will. And now, one of them is taking to the pages of the New York Times to brag about it.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Times published an op-ed by an anonymous author, described as a “senior official in the Trump administration.” In a note accompanying the op-ed, the Times says that the author’s “identity is known to us,” but that the person’s “job would be jeopardized” if their name were published.

The anonymous “senior official” claims to be part of an informal network to protect America from its president: “Many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

The op-ed comes on the heels of advance reports about Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book Fear, which is said to describe several occasions of Trump staffers thwarting the president. At one point, then-chief economic adviser Gary Cohn reportedly whisked a tariff proposal off Trump’s desk before Trump could see and approve it. But while active White House officials have denied Woodward’s account, the Times op-ed claims that Trump’s inner circle trusts the president even less than anyone has guessed.

Interestingly, the official response from the White House doesn’t claim the op-ed is fiction (as Trump has with Woodward’s book and other unflattering accounts). Instead, they attack the Times for lack of scruple in publishing the piece, and call the author a coward who simply resents what Trump has done for the country:

Ironically, the White House’s conclusion — that it would be more honorable for the author to name themselves and resign than to keep their perch and whine anonymously — is also the position taken by many of the Trump critics sharing the op-ed and speculating about its author. Because even if a lot of people are willing to believe that the anonymous official is telling the truth, there are a lot of other people out there who aren’t — and another anonymous report about Trump’s unfitness for office doesn’t do anything to solve the problem it’s identified.

Who is the anonymous official who wrote the Times op-ed?

We don’t know, and that’s the point.

Countless Twitter gumshoes have come up with theories about who wrote the op-ed based on close scrutiny of its language: use of particular phrases like “lodestar” (Vice President Mike Pence!) and “don’t get me wrong” (Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen!)

This is a bad idea. We don’t know how many rounds of edits Times editors went through with the op-ed author, and anyone who’s been edited can tell you that after even a moderate edit the prose doesn’t necessarily read “like you.”

So without wild textual speculation, here’s what we got.

The term “senior official” is pretty elastic; the term “Trump administration” is even more so. It could refer to someone in the White House or at any of the executive-branch agencies.

In theory, this article could be written by a career government employee at a federal agency — which would hew much closer to Trump’s own theory of the “deep state,” and blunt the implication that Trump’s own hand-picked appointees think he is “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless.”

That said, the piece’s author sounds like a traditional mainstream Republican. They write in favor of “free minds, free markets and free people” (a vaguely libertarian slogan, but one that wouldn’t be out of place in the halls of the Heritage Foundation), and list “deregulation, historic tax reform, (and) a more robust military” as accomplishments to be proud of.

If you were inclined to read tea leaves, you could note that the examples the author gives appear to focus on foreign policy and national security. If you were inclined to read tea leaves even more closely, you could note that this paragraph certainly implies that the author is at least privy to the mindset of Cabinet officials themselves:

Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.

Did the Times actually get a Cabinet official (or a top aide to one) to write an anonymous op-ed trashing the president? Or did they allow a lower-level “senior” official to write a piece that casually implied membership in a “we” of Cabinet officials and those who consult with them? Only Times editors (and the author) know — which brings us to the next question.

Was it a good idea for the Times to publish this?

As leaky as the Trump administration is, this op-ed is the strongest case anyone has seen that even the people in the top levels of the White House — people who believe that a “Trumpist” agenda would be good for America — don’t trust Donald Trump, the man, to carry that agenda out. It’s great gossip. Guessing who wrote it will probably be a DC parlor game for years, or at least until the Times’s Maggie Haberman (or the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey) dig up the name.

But publications generally have a higher bar for publishing quotes from people who won’t put their names to their words than just “juicy gossip.” In particular, there has to be a good reason that the person refuses to be named — because a lot of people, up to and including the president himself, reflexively assume that any anonymous quote is made up maliciously.

And while the White House is famously leaky — and a lot of people are leaking mean things about the president — few of them are willing to actually say these things in public. Lots of Trump officials quit, but none of them says they are quitting because the president is erratic and terrifying — even though many of them appear to believe he is.

It can be hard to tell the staffers who are saying bad things about Trump because they believe them from the staffers who are doing so because they want to signal to reporters that they know it’s considered impolite at best to work for this president. Meanwhile, voters who believe that Trump is a brilliant strategist who knows exactly how to make America great again are free to disregard any of the anonymous quotes.

In this case, it seems fairly obvious that the person who wrote the op-ed would be fired by the president if their identity were revealed. On the other hand, if the person who wrote the op-ed were willing to lose their job to tell the public the truth about Trump’s unreliability, it would make their case much more notable.

Could a “deep state” really constrain Trump?

The thesis of the op-ed is that America is running on a “two-track presidency” — there’s the track on which the government actually runs, independently of the president, and then there’s the track on which the president complains about it as if he’s watching his own government on TV.

The op-ed author points to anti-Russian sanctions as an example of this. And it’s true that for all Trump’s rage-tweeting about (for example) the Department of Justice, he doesn’t appear to be doing anything to prevent federal attorneys from (for example) continuing to prosecute Republican members of Congress.

But there are a couple of problems with the idea of the “two-track” presidency.

One of them is that the line between “what Trump believes” and “what conservatives believe” is, frankly, a lot clearer to elite conservatives than it is to elite liberals. A lot of Trump critics are suspicious of the deregulatory agenda the Times’s op-ed author crows about because they worry about the rapacity of corrupt business owners. A lot of them are skeptical of a more muscular military because they don’t want a weapon that can be used by a president who thinks that “kill more people” is a preferred substitute for strategy.

The op-ed author doesn’t mention immigration, but that is one area where Trump’s own desires are being put into policy on a frequent basis — it took eight months and multiple attempts to invent a travel ban that would satisfy Trump’s campaign promises, and at least one conservative in the White House reportedly resigned because she felt that refugee-policy decisions weren’t being made based on reality.

And even when people are actively trying to protect America from Trump, that effort may not work. The “free market” op-ed author, whoever they are, hasn’t stopped Trump from enacting steel and aluminum tariffs with very little review, or engaging in an escalating trade war with China — or from nearly scuttling NAFTA renegotiation talks by insulting Canada off-the-record during an interview.

The “deep state” can try to hammer out an agreement with representatives of Kim Jong Un about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but they can’t stop the president from agreeing, behind closed doors, to Kim’s request to formally declare an end to the Korean War.

The Times op-ed writer seems convinced that they are doing more good by staying than they would by telling the truth, with name attached, and leaving. But that doesn’t mean that every reader, even without knowing who the author is, has to agree.

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