The column drew immediate and extraordinary attention from the news media and a public rebuke from the president, who called it “gutless” during a ceremony at the White House. A statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the column “just another example of the liberal media’s concerted effort to discredit the President.” Trump later tweeted a one-word, all-caps reaction: “TREASON?”
Notably, neither he nor White House press secretary denied that it was written by someone in his administration.
It marked the second consecutive day in which Trump was on the defensive over a critical piece of writing. He spent part of Tuesday and early Wednesday on Twitter trashing a new book by author Bob Woodward, excerpts of which made claims similar to those made by the anonymous Times op-ed writer.
The article said, among other things, that there were “early whispers” among cabinet officials of invoking the 25th Amendment, a complex, never-before-used process for removing the president because he is deemed impaired and unable to fulfill his duties. The notion was rejected, wrote the author, because “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.”
Newspapers, and the Times in particular, rarely allow people to write opinion pieces without attaching their names. The primary issue is transparency; readers are entitled to know who is opining, so that they can more fully judge the author’s motives, intentions and possible vested interests.
However, the Times has permitted it previously. It published a piece in June by a woman from El Salvador who recounted her treatment in U.S. detention; she was granted anonymity because she and her family faced gang violence in her native country, according to the Times.
In an unsigned note attached to the column, the Times said it took “the rare step” of publishing the essay at the author’s request. It said his or her identity is known to the editors, but that the writer’s job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. The note added: “We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”
Times editorial-page editor James Bennet declined to provide further information about the writer’s position or identity, but said the newspaper received the article before news about Woodward’s book broke on Tuesday. He said the newspaper “would not have been able to publish” the article if it had not granted anonymity to its author.
“We thought it was an important perspective to get out,” he said. “Our preference is not to publish anonymously and we seldom do it. The question is, do we think the piece was important enough to make an exception? We feel strongly that it was.”
Among the key takeaways from the article, he said, was the writer’s explanation of why he or she was working for the administration despite deep concerns about the president. “The writer believes in the president’s accomplishment,” said Bennet, “but is very concerned about the president’s mercurial behavior.”
The anonymous nature of the Times column is likely to intensify a persistent suspicion among Trump’s supporters — that a “deep state” within the federal government is actively working against him and his agenda. The column suggests that the notion isn’t entirely far-fetched.
“From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims,” the column said.
In a meeting with law enforcement officials from around the country at the White House on Wednesday, Trump denounced the “failing” New York Times and the news media.
“If I weren’t here, I believe the New York Times probably wouldn’t exist,” he said to applause from the uniformed officers. “And someday when [he’s out of office], hopefully six and a half years from now, the New York Times and CNN will be out of business. There will be nothing to write.”
He added that the Times published “an anonymous editorial — can you believe it? — anonymous, meaning gutless.”
The anonymous column immediately raised memories of “Deep Throat,” the high-ranking government source who helped Woodward in his reporting on President Nixon’s Watergate crimes in 1972 and 1973. Speculation about Deep Throat’s identity persisted for decades until Deep Throat himself — former FBI official Mark Felt — unmasked himself in an article in Vanity Fair in 2005.
A similar guessing game surrounded the identity of the anonymous author of “Primary Colors,” a satirical, best-selling novel and movie based on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. The Washington Post cracked the riddle in 1996, identifying Newsweek columnist and CBS commentator Joe Klein as the book’s author.