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The unprecedented Whodunnit over anonymous New York Times op-ed writer – and what it means for Trump and White House

White House launches internal inquiry while political class sleuths online 

Andrew Buncombe
Washington DC
Thursday 06 September 2018 22:44 BST
Donald Trump calls anonymous NY Times op-ed 'gutless'

It is a whodunnit, the like of which has not gripped the nation’s capital for decades.

Perhaps not since “Deep Throat” in 1972 revealed to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, details about Richard Nixon that would ultimately lead to his resignation, has Washington been so obsessed with discovering the identity of an official insider with juicy and damning information about the US government.

As it is, 46 years after his first famous scoop, Woodward is back in the news as leaked excerpts from a forthcoming book, Fear: Trump in the White House, portrayed a dysfunctional “crazytown” administration in a state of nervous breakdown.

Donald Trump angrily dismissed Woodward’s yet-to-be published book as “already discredited”. But his emotions over that forthcoming publication appear to have been modest compared to the “volcanic rage” with which he reportedly reacted to an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, apparently written by a senior official in his own administration.

The official described themselves as part of a “resistance” inside the government that was working to protect the country from Trump’s worst impulses and had considered, but decided against, seeking to use the constitution’s 25th amendment and replace him with vice president Mike Pence.

“We believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic,” the official wrote.

“That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

Trump and his top officials immediately launched a hunt to discover the identity of the official. Tweeting the word “treason”, the president added: “If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once.”

Mike Pompeo: I did not write anti-Trump New York Times piece

His allies outside the government, such as Fox News host Laura Ingraham described the writer as a coward, while former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, said the person should quit. “If you don't like your job and you’re disgruntled, because of what this president has done, you can find another job,” he said.

Washington frequently feels like a government town in a very singular way. While there is a large, population of permanent residents, many of them African American, some days it feels as if everyone you bump into, or see on television, is working for the government, writing about the government, doing the government’s accounts, representing it legally or else lobbying it to do one thing or another.

So when stories such as the furore over the anonymous op-ed writer break, they take hold with an intensity that may seem like madness from outside the capital.

In truth, the comments contained in the article were merely the latest in a series of “exposes” to reveal dysfunction in the government. Earlier this year, Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, claimed “100 per cent of the people around him” believed Trump to be unfit for office.

Last month, Omarosa Manigault Newman, a one-time contestant on The Apprentice who subsequently joined the reality TV show host’s administration, published a book in which she said “an army of people” was working to stop the president hurting the country.

Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom in 1973
Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom in 1973 (AP)

“Many in this silent army are in his party, his administration, and even in his own family,” she claimed.

The New York Times, whose own reporters do not know the identity of the author because of the strict “firewall” between the opinion pages and the newsroom, has also reported on efforts to slow down certain policies, such as Trump’s opposition to transgender people serving in the military.

The fallout over the latest claims saw secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defence secretary James Mattis forced to deny they were article’s author.

And amid a frenzy of online sleuthing suggesting the use of the word “lodestar” in the article pointed to its author being Pence, the vice president was also forced to issue a denial. “The vice president puts his name on his op-eds. The @nytimes should be ashamed and so should the person who wrote the false, illogical, and gutless op-ed,” said his spokesman.

David Corn, political editor of Mother Jones, told The Independent the closest parallel he could remember, was in 1996 following the publication of Primary Colors, a novel that was essentially a lightly fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the presidency. It was six months after the “anonymous” novel’s publication, that it was revealed the author was Time magazine columnist Joe Klein.

“This is unprecedented,” Corn said of the current frenzy over the New York Times’s anonymous author. He said the reason was that it was written by a serving government official, and that because in the age of the internet and social media, everyone could join in the guessing game.

His own personal hunch, he said, was the author was not a “principal” within the government, but someone at a lower level. He had tweeted that if the word “lodestar” was a genuine clue to author’s identity, then people should be looking to individuals such as Pence’s speechwriters and advisers rather than the vice president himself.

What does all of this mean? Perhaps not that much. Democratic congressman Adam Schiff told CNN it was possible Trump would double down on those policies he believed his staff were trying to block with “malign purpose”.

Among Mr Trump’s supporters, the New York Times article is likely to be ignored. His support among his base remains very solid. While 53 per cent of Americans disapprove of the president’s performance compared to 46 who approve, among Republicans he gets the backing of as many as 88 per cent of people.

What is also noteworthy is that despite the leaks – and claims in books Woodward’s that people such as chief of staff John Kelly regard the president as “an idiot” – very few Republicans have spoken against Trump in public. The last to do so, in fact, was Arizona Senator John McCain.

While the frenzy over the article has meant the anonymous member of the administration has ensured their views have received massive coverage, it is also likely their anonymity may not last long. Many believe Trump’s anger, and the nature of social media, mean that before long, he or she, will be unmasked.

While the Nixon administration always had its suspicions about the source of Woodward and Bernstein’s information, it was not until 2005 – a full 33 years after their articles were published in the Washington Post – that Deep Throat was confirmed as former senior FBI official Mark Felt. That story was broken not by the Post but by Vanity Fair –Woodward and Bernstein kept their promise to protect their source to the end.

Given that Felt had managed to keep the secret for 33 years, how long did Mother Jones editor David Corn think the anonymous op-ed writer would manage to?

“Oh, I’d say 33 hours,” he said. “Everything happens so quickly these days. I would be surprised if this stayed a secret for a very long time.”

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