It was a metaphoric molotov, a middle finger, a knife in the back. Naturally, it emerged from the “Deep Throat” ether just before 4 p.m., smack in the middle of the workweek.
Even in the midst of a presidency and news cycle that powers a ceaseless hamster wheel of drama, the New York Times op-ed from an anonymous “senior” official in the Trump administration was jaw-dropping. The unidentified author declared that he or she is part of the “resistance” against the president, “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
The piece slammed Trump for his inadequacies and volatility and declared him a danger to the country.
But lucky for us, the author said, there’s a group of honorable subversives trying to keep him at bay.
But the explosion the piece created wasn’t really about the what; it was mostly about the who.
It was also about the spectacle, the joy of the adrenaline-fueled race. It was the starting whistle setting off another remarkable round of Washington’s unofficial sport: speculative gossip.
Internet conspiracy theorists cracked their knuckles and settled in for a long night’s work, which then spilled into Thursday.
Pundits sat by their phones and in front of TV cameras, waiting for their chances to weigh in.
Ravenous masses took to Twitter and Reddit to tear into the piece’s bread crumbs.
The game was afoot.
The avalanche of guesses engulfed just about everyone in the top tiers of the White House — press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Chief of Staff John F. Kelly? Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway?
Some were sure it would be a big name; others were positive it would be a powerful nobody.
CNN’s Chris Cillizza threw together a list of 12 possible authors, including “Javanka” and the first lady. Even others wondered whether Trump and his allies had plotted and penned the op-ed themselves to feed the fires of internal controversy and distract from Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh’s hearings and the revelations of Bob Woodward’s “Fear,” which offered examples of staffers sabotaging the president in myriad ways as the administration teetered toward breakdown.
Some zeroed in on Vice President Pence as the mystery author, primarily because of the use of the word “lodestar” in the op-ed.
Gung-ho sleuths traced the word through numerous Pence speeches, dating back to 2001.
Maybe it was Pence’s speechwriter, some pondered. Others noted that the author surely would have known that people would try to follow the money words; so maybe the author was trying to set up Pence, or was simply throwing sleuths off their scent.
“Our office is above such amateur acts,” Pence’s communications director, Jarrod Agen, wrote on Twitter.
The sport of prediction was so compelling that it birthed a bespoke betting market overnight.
Trump attacked the op-ed and its publisher late Wednesday afternoon, calling it “gutless.”
“We have somebody in what I call the failing New York Times that’s talking about he’s part of the resistance inside the Trump administration,” Trump told reporters. “This is what we have to deal with. And you know the dishonest media . . . But it’s really a disgrace.”
Afterward, the president tweeted a single word: “TREASON?”
In a fiery statement, Sanders declared the piece “a new low,” demanded an apology from the Times and called for the author’s resignation from the administration.
“He is not putting country first, but putting himself and his ego ahead of the will of the American people,” the White House spokeswoman said. “The coward should do the right thing and resign.”
Paranoia blossomed behind closed doors in the White House, according to a Washington Post report, as aides and staffers engaged in a fevered, real-life game of “Guess Who?” as they tried to nail down the op-ed’s author.
“The column, which published midafternoon Wednesday, sent tremors through the West Wing and launched a frantic guessing game,” The Post’s Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey wrote. “Startled aides canceled meetings and huddled behind closed doors to strategize a response. Aides were analyzing language patterns to try to discern the author’s identity or at a minimum the part of the administration where the author works.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that some White House aides even called journalists to ask who was responsible for the anonymous Times op-ed. In a tweet late Thursday morning, Sanders encouraged the public to dial the Times opinion desk if they “want to know who this gutless loser is.”
Although a note at the top of the piece said the author’s identity was “known” to the Times opinion staff, those privy stayed tight-lipped, apparently bound to protect the official’s anonymity, despite outcry from some of the paper’s own reporters.
But in an interview with CNN, a Times op-ed page editor, Jim Dao, revealed that the source had reached out to the paper through a go-between, offering to unveil (well, sort of) the “resistance” within the administration to the world. Dao didn’t say how the Times communicated with the author, or elaborate on exactly how “senior” the person is, CNN reported.
Times editorial-page editor James Bennet told The Post’s Paul Farhi that the newspaper “would not have been able to publish” the op-ed if it had not granted anonymity to the author.
“We thought it was an important perspective to get out,” he told The Post. “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.”
Veteran Washingtonians compared the storm of speculation to the one that surrounded “Primary Colors,” a novel published by “Anonymous” that was heavily based on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Experts used linguistic analysis to try to match the prose to a known author. Clinton teased the press by saying the author’s identity was “the only secret I’ve seen kept in Washington in three years,” The Post noted at the time.
The man behind the book — political columnist Joe Klein — finally came forward after The Post reported that handwriting samples from an early manuscript appeared to match Klein’s penmanship. Critics called Klein’s anonymity a stunt, a means of drumming up drama to sell books while exaggerating his insider knowledge.
Thursday, as the op-ed speculation continued (dubbed a “wild guessing game” by Axios), Politico Playbook noted that “the Washington parlour game of guessing who wrote the op-ed is at an all-time high. Everyone around town is buzzing about who it might be. The question dominated cable news. The author will be revealed. Remember ‘Primary Colors’? And all the NYT can hope is that its ‘senior administration official’ is actually someone that the news pages would consider a ‘senior administration official.’”
Those bored by the attempts at unmasking the op-ed’s author moved on to what might follow, what legacy the person might win through public betrayal. He or she will be heralded as a hero, paraded through the talk-show circuit and rewarded handsomely in book deals and prestigious opportunities, predicted Karen Attiah, The Post’s Global Opinions editor.
Others decried the author as a coward, a villain in complicity, proof that even those who see the president as a threat and a failure still aren’t willing to confront him in the open.
On Reddit, mixed metaphors reigned in a thread titled, “Ask Trump Supporters.”
“This seems like a rat jumping off the ship to try to land a book deal,” one user wrote, before the conversation turned toward whether the op-ed constituted treason worthy of the death penalty.
That reference even made its way into Trump’s orbit, as The Post’s Rucker, Parker and Dawsey reported: A former White House official who remains in close contact with former colleagues from the administration said the anonymous op-ed “is like the horror movies when everyone realizes the call is coming from inside the house.”