Who is it? That was the only question that mattered in Washington Thursday morning. Confirmation hearings grind on, a hurricane grows in the Atlantic, but all anyone can talk about is which “senior administration official” wrote an anonymous op-ed for the New York Times, portraying President Trump as a demented fool being warily contained by his patriotic staff.
Everyone has a theory; no one has proof. The president has attempted to dismiss the article as fake news, while also accusing whoever wrote it of treason. Which suggests that he, too, knows what the rest of Washington does: that the op-ed was written by a staffer who merely echoed in public the things many people have already heard plenty of times in private.
Endless speculation about its authorship is fun, but what does the op-ed actually mean? The answer depends on how you feel about the president.
Trump’s detractors will see in the op-ed confirmation of what they already believed: that he is seemingly incapable of having a reasoned discussion about policy; that he is wildly erratic; and that his main fixation is being seen to “win” over other leaders, no matter the cost to the rest of the country. His critics are asking what one does with a president such as this. Impeachment? Use the 25th Amendment to declare him permanently incapacitated? Meanwhile, they echo Trump himself by denouncing anonymous cowards who stay with this president rather than honorably resigning.
Like many of those critics, I don’t doubt the country would be better off under a President Mike Pence. But unlike them, I see no way to get there. Neither impeachment nor the 25th Amendment option can be executed without congressional majorities that don’t currently exist. Congress knows, as America does, that Trump’s public behavior hasn’t really changed much since his campaign. As horrifying as I may find it, Republican voters knew what they were getting. They would turn on any politician who acts to override the election result, and they would arguably be justified in doing so.
In the absence of some broad national consensus — say the 66 percent that favored impeaching President Richard M. Nixon on the eve of his resignation — it seems obviously better to have people such as the anonymous op-ed writer working in the administration, curbing the president’s worst instincts, rather than standing outside it and making futile public gestures.
For the president’s supporters, however, people such as the op-ed writer are apt to seem exactly the problem. The op-ed wasn’t evidence of the president’s incompetence, it was proof that “the establishment” is colluding to contain and destroy the man they elected to shake up a rotten system.
But if the problem really is a treasonous establishment, one has to ask how a man with Trump’s self-reported management acumen managed to fill the White House with so many of these vipers. The existence of a leaker or two making grandiose anonymous claims can be written off to the inevitable mistakes of staffing any big organization. But “I made a few mistakes” cannot explain an Oval Office that leaks more in a week than the White House under President George W. Bush did in a year. Good managers hire good people and foster team spirit; they simply don’t end up in situations like this.
Even some Trump supporters may have started to suspect that the president exaggerated his business prowess more than the leakers are exaggerating their stories. The spectacle unfolding at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is simply too reminiscent of a phenomenon that many of them will be familiar with: a small family-owned business run on principles of nepotism and blind loyalty that is rarely reciprocated when family interests are at stake. Which is exactly the sort of businessman Trump has always been.
And what does a loyal employee do when the chief begins to fail, given that he can be neither countermanded nor argued with? Flee the sinking ship? Try to rescue it by quietly laboring to stymie the boss’s wilder desires? Attempt to enlist the family in some sort of coup?
None of these options are good. If all the sane employees leave, the firm will founder. Thwarting the chief risks prodding him into making more-flamboyant decisions to show he is still in control. And a failed coup will cleave what remains of the organization, without getting rid of its biggest problem. So maybe you decide to stay, but also to vent your frustration to outsiders — including the op-ed editors of the New York Times, if they’re interested.
Anyone who has wrestled with such a dilemma should recognize themselves in the author of the Times op-ed. And if enough Americans do — building a national consensus — it’s just possible the president’s Cabinet can remove him before the whole thing comes crashing down around everyone’s ears.