With such material, identifying the writer — especially one residing anywhere in the federal government — was difficult. (Like many non-astute observers, I assumed that the name would leak quickly. It did not.)
Now, Anonymous has written a 259-page book, “A Warning,” promising to “cut through the noise” of this presidency and making the case that, yes, Trump “still lacks the guiding principles needed to govern our nation.” Trump is “reckless” and his management style “erratic.” The president’s qualities include “inattentiveness,” “impulsiveness” and “intellectual laziness.” He displays misogynistic behavior, embraces conspiracy theories, bullies subordinates, abuses his powers, doesn’t listen to briefings and regards criticism as treason. Anonymous also concedes that the thesis of the original op-ed — that the alleged adults in the room could curb Trump’s worst instincts — has proved false. “Americans should not expect that his advisors can fix the situation,” Anonymous acknowledges. “We cannot.”
However accurate and sobering such characterizations may be, they all belong in a folder labeled Stuff We Already Know. Unfortunately, much of “A Warning” reads like a longer version of the op-ed, purposely vague and avoiding big revelations in order to preserve the author’s anonymity. The writer admits as much. “Many recollections will have to remain in my memory until the right time, lest the debate devolve into one about my identity.” Anonymous decries the “contemptible Washington parlor game” of guessing that identity and insists that the name is secret so the focus can be on the substance of the message, not on the messenger. “Some will call this ‘cowardice,’ ” Anonymous writes. “My feelings are not hurt by the accusation. Nor am I unprepared to attach my name to criticism of President Trump. I may do so, in due course.”
But what is the right time, if not now? When will that course ever be more due? The House of Representatives is embarked on an impeachment inquiry against the president. Civil servants are stepping forward to testify — in public, with names and faces — about what they saw, heard and did. The writer’s decision is not necessarily cowardly, but worse, it is self-defeating. Anonymity is often granted to acquire additional information, but in this book, it excuses giving less. “A Warning” tells us plenty about what Anonymous thinks, not enough about what Anonymous knows. And without learning more about the writer, it’s tough to know what to make of either.
In the absence of facts, readers are barraged by similes. Trump is “like a twelve-year old in an air-traffic control tower, pushing the buttons of government indiscriminately,” Anonymous writes. Alternatively, “the Trump White House is like an Etch A Sketch. Every morning the president wakes up, shakes it, and draws something.” Trump’s words sound like “those of a two-bit bartender at a rundown barrelhouse.” His deceptions are “like a game of Twister gone wrong; the truth was so tied up in knots, no one knew what the hell we were talking about anymore.” And most vivid, working for Trump is “like showing up at the nursing home at daybreak to find your elderly uncle running pantsless across the courtyard and cursing loudly about the cafeteria food, as worried attendants try to catch him.”
There are moments of detail and revelation, but they usually affirm points long understood about the president. When discussing whether to challenge Saudi leaders on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump launches into a discussion of oil prices. (“Do you know how stupid it would be to pick this fight? Oil would go up to one hundred fifty dollars a barrel. Jesus.”) The president mocks women migrating to this country, feigning a Spanish-language accent. (“We get these women coming in with like seven children. They are saying, ‘Oh, please help! My husband left me!’ They are useless.”) He asks his legal team to draft a bill slashing the number of federal judges. (“Let’s get rid of the f---ing judges.”) And you know Trump is about to propose something unethical when he scans the room for notetakers. (“What the f--- are you doing? Are you f---ing taking notes?”)
This is the fate of so many of the Chaos Chronicles — the insider books that tell us what it’s really, truly like in the Trump administration. Their explosive anecdotes about the president — He wrote up an enemies list! Cabinet secretaries think he’s stupid! Top aides steal sensitive documents off his desk! He wants to build a border moat with alligators! Yes, alligators! — manage to be shocking and alarming yet, by this point in the Trump presidency, almost entirely unsurprising.
What frustrates about reading “A Warning” is that its author is not a journalist or a former official, but someone still working in the administration at a high level and ostensibly in position to not just chronicle conditions but to affect them. Instead, the book offers an endless encore of senior officials expressing concern to one another. A sampling of the lyrics:
“Officials held their breath.”
“NSC leaders were nonplussed.”
“We all watched with a sense of doom.”
“This is completely bats---.”
“Man oh man what the f--- is he doing?”
“There is literally no one in charge here.”
I recall one occasion when Anonymous describes doing something proactive. The head of an agency had spoken on Capitol Hill about a U.S. foreign adversary; the description was accurate but at odds with the president’s stated views. Trump was threatening to dismiss the official. Anonymous and a colleague “scrambled to make sure Trump didn’t take to Twitter to announce a new firing,” the author recounts. “Doing so, we argued, would make him look like he was trying to manipulate the intelligence process at a time when that would be very bad for him, especially with the Mueller investigation unfinished. Thankfully, he kept his powder dry, but only temporarily.”
More often in “A Warning,” actions are not taken; they are almost taken. In a particularly dire circumstance, several top officials consider resigning together, a “midnight self-massacre” that would draw attention to Trump’s mismanagement. “The move was deemed too risky because it would shake public confidence,” Anonymous explains. At any moment, the author writes, there are at least a handful of top aides “on the brink” of quitting. (The brink is a popular hangout for Trump officials.) Anonymous also wonders if Trump’s response to the Charlottesville protests in 2017, when the president drew a moral equivalence between white nationalists and those opposing them, would have been the time for such a gesture. “Maybe that was a lost moment, when a rush to the exits would have meant something.”
It’s like “Profiles in Thinking About Courage.”
The author describes a process of disillusion, from joining the administration in the hope that Trump could be a successful conservative president, to proclaiming the internal resistance in the Times, to concluding that the effort had failed and watching comrades — the “Steady Staters” — steadily depart. “What remains are more defenders than do-gooders in the political ranks; obsequious pleasers outnumber thoughtful public servants.”
It is not clear why, if Anonymous has concluded that the quiet resistance is powerless, the author remains in the administration. If no longer resisting, what is Anonymous doing, and how is he or she furthering the Trump agenda? That is the tragedy of Trump’s adults in the room; the longer you’re in that room, the less of an adult you become. “Anyone aiding the Trump administration is, or was, one of his Apologists,” Anonymous admits. “They’ve all waited too long to speak out and haven’t spoken forcefully enough. Myself included.”
The title of the book would seem to indicate a warning about the president, but the author’s real warning is more generic. We have to “restore the soul” of our politics, Anonymous writes. “If, however, we shrink from the task, our names will be recorded by history as those who didn’t pass the torch but let its light expire. That is my warning.”
Sincere, earnest and true, no doubt, but also the kind of sentiment appearing daily in the nation’s opinion pages. We don’t need a secret administration insider to tell us to pass the torch of liberty; we need that person to detail whether and how the torch is being doused.
Anonymous, who promises to “strenuously deny” authorship of this book should anyone ask, explains that certain details have been withheld or "modified without changing the facts” to safeguard the anonymity of those involved. (“Modified without changing the facts” is a great Washington formulation.) “Anyone whose sole purpose in reading this book is to uncover names, including my own, will find they are wasting their time.”
But, unlike a newspaper op-ed, a full-length book is tough to write without leaving fingerprints. So, I might be getting played, but here is my tentative profile of Anonymous, gleaned from the text:
Anonymous is not a well-known figure. Anonymous does not work in the White House but in a high-profile cabinet agency. Anonymous is an establishment Republican, believing in free trade, small government and the international liberal order. Anonymous did not support Trump during the 2016 primaries but was career-minded enough to avoid major criticisms of the candidate. Anonymous probably served in the George W. Bush administration, particularly the second term. Anonymous has experience at the intersection of law and national security, and is serving in that second tier of senior-level jobs that can lead to more prominent roles in future Republican administrations. Anonymous is an institutionalist, obsessed with process and orderly decision-making. Under Trump, Anonymous has worked within walking distance of the White House. Anonymous is an Ivy League lawyer and has some writing background, perhaps as a former speechwriter, law clerk or even a long-ago student journalist. Anonymous is personally familiar with top military brass but is unlikely to have served in uniform. Anonymous expresses admiration for John McCain (though notes unspecified disagreements with the late senator). He praises former White House counsel Don McGahn for standing up to Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for his efforts to ease trade disputes. Anonymous is scathing about Trump’s homeland security officials, who “left a stain on their reputations, their department, and the country” with the family-separation policy on the U.S.-Mexico border. Anonymous is probably a Gen Xer with a Twitter presence, but not an active one, perhaps a lurker or the holder of private account. Anonymous is a self-described “student of history,” incessantly citing Greek and Roman philosophers, Founding Fathers, past presidents and historians — the kind of person who belongs to legal or historical societies. Anonymous is a sports fan. And Anonymous probably earned a comfortable living in the private sector during the Obama years, making it easier to forgo the book advance, donate royalties and risk losing a government job if outed as the author.
A parlor game? Maybe. But without a clearer sense of who Anonymous is and what this person has seen, done and is still doing, “A Warning” does not cut through the noise. It just creates more of it.