Either Wednesday’s explosive New York Times op-ed becomes the start of a bigger, public resistance to President Trump from inside his own administration, senior officials who agree Trump threatens the country tell The Daily Beast, or it will be nothing more than an exercise in moral vanity while America burns.
Some officials interviewed by The Daily Beast cheered the underlying message of the anonymously written op-ed. But several worried about its lasting impact, beyond provoking a familiar Washington parlor game: outing a dissenter. There was even a fear that the op-ed would hand Trump a pretext to purge his administration of the very bureaucratic scapegoats the op-ed writer portrayed as being crucial to saving America from Trump.
“If there are senior people in leadership positions and these are their observations and feelings, then their efforts can’t just stop at the op-ed or move to mitigate the president here and there. They need to take steps that are more bold,” said a State Department official who was not cleared to talk to journalists. “Publicly resign, en masse.”
Without mass resignations, the official considered the op-ed little more than reputational insurance. “Folks have been looking to pay premiums on that policy for a while now. Anyone from the outside can see how dysfunctional it is, and you’re complicit” as a political appointee, the official continued. “It’s different for career people.”
Inside the White House, staffers were apoplectic. Trump himself insisted the Times must “turn over” the writer for “National Security purposes,” if the writer and senior official does “indeed exist.” The op-ed contained not even a hint of classified information, providing no national security justification for Trump’s tacit threat.
Behind the scenes, sources say, Trump wasn’t holding up much better. According to people familiar with his response, the president, in the words of one adviser, “exploded” to those close to him on Wednesday, demanding to know who this anonymous senior official could be.
At the Department of Justice—which has been eyed suspiciously by the White House for nearly two years as a source of insubordination—the atmosphere was tense Thursday morning. Two officials inside the department said they’ve been passively resisting the president since he took office in 2017. “We see ourselves as rebels,” one official said laughing, adding that the op-ed marked a perfect time to celebrate.
“We even went around fist-bumping each other,” another official said.
But a third, who feels similarly about Trump, sounded darker notes about where Trump’s ire over public embarrassment could lead.
“It could motivate Trump to pursue the Erdogan-style purge of the bureaucracy that he hasn’t pursued yet,” said a Justice Department trial attorney. “Some of the Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys are serious people committed to law enforcement. What if Trump were to replace them with loyalist hacks from the campaign, like Boris Epshteyn? We’d like to think that the Senate wouldn’t allow it, but we can’t be sure.”
The piece thrust much of Washington, D.C., into a whodunit mystery, with rampant speculation about the authorship and outright shock from veterans of White Houses past that it happened at all.
Matt Bennett, a former Clinton aide, emailed, “Even during the impeachment, when all of us were horrified by his personal conduct, no one in the Clinton White House (or administration) would EVER have done anything like this… I can’t imagine this happening in any modern presidency other than Nixon’s.”
Reaction from the president’s boosters ranged from fury to insistence that the official at issue is undoubtedly a middle manager with no real authority or insight.
“I’m guessing it’s like the assistant secretary [of state] for Eastern European affairs or something dumb like that,” speculated one bemused senior administration official.
“It’s important that we figure out who this person is and what their title and role was,” said Marc Lotter, a former senior Trump administration official, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “My title was special assistant to the president and press secretary to the vice president, and I’m sure [a lot of people] thought I was senior staff, and yet there were still meetings and discussions that were way above my paygrade… Everybody in this city is a senior official to something if it gets them on television, or published, or a job somewhere else.”
Although it is unclear whether a full-on, formal investigation has been launched, West Wing officials who spoke to The Daily Beast say aides—some out of professional anger, some to try to quell Trump’s rage, others out of pure curiosity—are scrambling to narrow down a shortlist of who the nameless scribe likely is. One senior Trump aide conceded that much of this has amounted to little more than a “guessing game,” as the term “senior administration official” is a tremendously broad classification that stretches across different areas of the federal government.
Outside the administration, speculation quickly turned into amateur detective work that led to some specious conclusions. The column’s use of the word “lodestar” led a number of social media sleuths to finger Vice President Mike Pence, whose office has used the word in a number of official statements. By Thursday, Pence himself, along with a host of Trump Cabinet secretaries and senior White House officials, had publicly denied writing it.
That hasn’t stopped bookies from getting in on the action. PredictIt, an online betting market, started taking wagers early Thursday morning on which senior administration official was behind the column.
Handling the fallout of politically motivated anonymous quotes or leaks is a rite of passage for every president. Early in Barack Obama’s administration, a 66-page report on the future course of the Afghanistan war, penned by then-commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was sent to Bob Woodward before the president had announced his formal decision. Later in his time in office, a White House official famously described Obama’s foreign policy as “leading from behind.”
“It was sort of a breach of the Obama ethos,” said one top aide from Obama’s comms shop. “But on the scale of everything we were dealing with, it was a small deal.”
What Trump is confronting now is far different, veterans of past White House stressed. The leaks and anonymous quotes aren’t being offered to influence a political outcome or force the president’s hand one way or another. They’re warning signs about the president himself.
“Closest thing I can think of is Scott McClellan’s book, but Scott put his name on it. There’s nothing I can recall, but I was there for much of the first term, and the president was pretty popular,” said Ari Fleischer, press secretary for George W. Bush’s White House.
With the guessing game underway, some sources made sport out of it.
“If you’re asking me if I wrote the op-ed, yes, I did,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast before chuckling extensively. The official did not write the op-ed.
—with additional reporting by Sam Stein