What should we make of Anonymous?

No doubt you recall the mysterious Trump administration insider who contributed an unsigned column to the New York Times last year. The gist of it was: Don’t worry, America! Your unstable and incompetent president has a mole in his inner circle who will prevent anything truly disastrous from happening.

I was never sure who, precisely, was supposed to feel better after reading this. The part about our Mad King was not designed to reassure anyone, nor could many people take comfort in knowing that the nation’s future is in the hands of some nameless rationalizer who toadies up to President Trump by day then scribbles self-justifications by night.

Following the ancient Roman principle of cui bono — who benefits? — I theorized at the time that the author was Jared Kushner, whose future atop glittering Manhattan society has been wrecked by his association with his father-in-law. Nothing would pave his way back to the Met Gala in a year or five like the juicy revelation that he was trying to stab Caesar all along, even if the only weapon he could put his hands on was a gold-plated olive fork at the Mar-a-Lago brunch buffet.

Yet if no one felt better, someone surely felt worse. Every aspect of the anonymous story was guaranteed to get under Trump’s skin. He values blind loyalty, sloppy flattery and grandstanding above almost anything. The idea of a traitor in his midst, telling tales of his haplessness, yet forgoing a long bath in the TV lights — this must boggle Trump’s mind.

While we can understand the president’s anxiety, though, his mole hunt has strayed dangerously out of bounds. Faced with the impending publication of a book by Anonymous, a senior Justice Department official has dispatched ominous letters to the publisher and literary agents involved, demanding information that could be used to ferret out the author’s identity.

Costumed in highfalutin language concerning the sanctity of classified information, these letters bear all the signs of a frantic response to orders from on high. Assistant Attorney General Joseph H. Hunt demands assurances that Anonymous won’t violate a nondisclosure agreement or security clearance, and asks to know where the author works in government and for how long. This fishing expedition is clearly designed to intimidate or constrain the author and publisher in advance of publication and is therefore beneath the dignity of any government lawyer. “Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in 1971. No wiggle room there.

Nor is there a national security argument to be made. Based on the Times column, Anonymous is unlikely to divulge anything more damaging than the president’s dirty laundry. Attorney General William P. Barr debases the department when he allows its formidable muscle to be used to closet the presidential skivvies.

Lord knows America has trouble agreeing these days, but this is a matter that ought to poll 100 percent. In this country, everyone has the right to say whatever they please about the government, from the dogcatcher all the way up to the president. We are free to make fun of their comb-overs, their big ears, their fractured syntax and the way they shake their fingers sternly when lying. We are free to demand their birth certificates and their tax returns. We are free to give them demeaning nicknames and to mock them with unflattering impersonations. By all means, disagree with us on the merits, but not with our right to speak in the first place.

Of all people, Donald J. Trump ought to appreciate this. He is a fire hose of invective, spraying abuse at targets large and small. But while he loves to dish it out, he hates to take it. Trump shields himself with nondisclosure agreements and grumbles about rewriting libel laws. Such hypocrisy is unappealing — but deploying Main Justice to intimidate a critic is unacceptable.

It’s a shame it will never occur to Trump that a surefire way to cut down on embarrassing leaks is to stop doing and saying embarrassing things. He could take lessons from his wife. (I started to write “better half,” but why state the obvious?) Melania Trump is an object of widespread fascination, but her staff leaks less than a nuclear submarine. I suspect that’s because they have little that is dishy to report.

The Anonymous portrait of an ignorant, impulsive president surrounded by a regency of sober adults has become less believable with each departure of another administration grown-up. This presidency is increasingly a one-man show. And so, while the right to publish should not be challenged, the need for this coda is questionable indeed. Donald Trump is an open book.

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