On Sept. 5, 2018, an anonymous senior official in the Trump administration published an op-ed in the New York Times confessing that "many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them."
"From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims.
Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.
* * *
It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening."
The anonymous writer also said: "The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making." The president generally opposes freedom: journalism, trade, democracy. To the extent the administration has managed to succeed in "effective deregulation, historic tax reform, [and] a more robust military," it is insofar as it has tamped down the president's "impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective" character.
Furthermore, the writer said, while those who worked closely with the president had, in the early days of the presidency, discussed the possibility of using the Constitution's 25th Amendment to remove him on the basis that he was unfit for office, they decided that they preferred to avoid such a "constitutional crisis."
The op-ed was immediately parodied by Andrew Paul in McSweeney's: "I Am Part of The Resistance Inside Nyarlathotep's Death Cult."
Other parodies hit social media. For example:
Fixed the title. pic.twitter.com/d0MhThPJ3C— dan sinker (@dansinker) September 6, 2018
In Esquire, Charles P. Pierce lamented "the careerist bleatings of anonymous sources who would like you to know that, by enabling El Caudillo Del Mar-a-Lago and his long, slow slide into howling madness, they are really keeping him from doing some real damage to the country, and shouldn't we all be grateful for their noble, selfless work." It isn't news, he says, that the president is amoral. "Jesus H. Christ on an auto-glass ad, everybody who watched him for 11 seconds on the campaign trail figured this out. You'd have to have had the brain of a marmoset not to be convinced of this back in 19-goddamn-79. More than 60 million people voted for him anyway. You took a job with him. When the scales fall from your eyes, make sure they don't hit you in the feet." He asked the author to come out of the closet: "None of you are heroes."
"Sure, the president is a would-be autocrat with severe emotional problems (who, technically, has unilateral command of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal). But that isn’t a dealbreaker once one realizes that the White House is full of “unsung heroes” (like our fearless author) who “have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing.” And while these patriots “are clearly not always successful,” Americans still shouldn’t feel any obligation to vote for Democrats this fall. No additional oversight is required — the “steady state” (get it? It’s like “deep state!”) has got this whole thing covered."
Levitz added that there is no ethical case to be made for
discouraging Americans from organizing politically to check the dangerous president’s power — nor is there one for wanting an administration led by this president “to succeed.”
Or, at least, there is no such case unless one believes — as this senior official apparently does — that making it easier for payday lenders to scam the working poor, lowering the corporate tax rate, and increasing America’s military budget (which was already larger than every other major power’s combined) are such morally urgent goals, it is worthwhile to risk autocratic rule for the sake of advancing them...
David Frum wrote in the Atlantic: "Overt defiance of presidential authority by the president’s own appointees — now that's a constitutional crisis." (Impeachment, the 25th Amendment, and "[m]ass resignations followed by voluntary testimony to congressional committees" are, by contrast, "constitutional mechanism[s].") "The author of the anonymous op-ed," Frum speculated, "is hoping to vindicate the reputation of like-minded senior Trump staffers. See, we only look complicit! Actually, we’re the real heroes of the story." Those who granted "deep-background gripe sessions" to journalist Bob Woodward for his book Fear (due out Sept. 11) would have done better to testify about Trump's unfitness before Congress, and something similar might be said about the author of the op-ed. The column likely "enflamed the paranoia of the president" who will "grow more defiant, more reckless, more anti-constitutional, and more dangerous." Apostrophizing the anonymous writer, Frum said that the writer's public service "is not so indispensable that it can compensate for the continuing tenure of a president you believe to be amoral, untruthful, irrational, antidemocratic, unpatriotic, and dangerous. Previous generations of Americans have sacrificed fortunes, health, and lives to serve the country. You are asked only to tell the truth aloud and with your name attached."
David A. Graham, acknowledging Frum's column, also wrote in the Atlantic that same day that it is "extremely worrying, and amount[s] to a soft coup against the president. Given that one of Trump’s great flaws is that he has little regard for rule of law, it’s hard to cheer on Cabinet members and others openly thwarting Trump’s directives, giving unelected officials" — that is, themselves — "effective veto power over the elected president. Like Vietnam War–era generals, they are destroying the village in order to save it. As is so often the case in the Trump administration, both alternatives are awful to consider." Graham acknowledges short-term value in "talk[ing] the president out of his worst impulses" but long-term harm in "disobeying orders and acts of deception."
The next morning, Sept. 6, the press secretary tweeted an an image of a text response. The text wasn't attributed, but it used language preferred by Trump ("gutless loser" and "failing NYT"), although Trump was referred to in the third person. The text accused the media of having a "wild obsession" with the question of who had written the op-ed. (The Times is not failing; over 15,000 readers left online comments in approximately one day before the Times closed the article to comments. And, if anyone is "obsessed" with identifying the writer, it is the President himself; see comments under Sept. 8.)
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) responded to the op-ed by telling journalists that "anyone who’s had any dealings over there knows that this is the reality that we’re living in" and that the real question is "who wouldn’t have written" it. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said, "If you’re not interested in helping the president, you shouldn’t work for the president," but he said he didn't think Congress should try to identify the person.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said that they would not have published the op-ed because it doesn't meet their criteria for offering anonymity, "not least because it isn’t news. The fact that senior Administration officials have been trying to block Mr. Trump’s uninformed policy impulses, and mute his self-destructive anger and narcissism, has been reported hundreds of times." They added: "Surely the writer knew that such insider criticism in the anti-Trump New York Times would be like waving a red cape in front of a raging bull....which makes us wonder if the writer’s real purpose is to assist the looming campaign for impeachment."
David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times that the op-ed may help "persuade a small but meaningful number of former Trump supporters" about the president's "unfitness for office and the chaos of his White House." Leonhardt added that he believes that the author "should go public with what’s really happening."
"...I’m not inclined to join the chorus of commentators who say he or she is being cowardly and instead should have gone public, resigned in front of television cameras, marched up to Congress and demanded to testify and...and then what? Exactly what would such a performance achieve?
Does anyone believe the Republican leadership in the House and Senate would do anything? As Corker said, Trump’s unfitness has been obvious from the beginning. Republican officials have made the conscious decision to see, hear and speak no evil. We’re probably better off with the 'senior official' still in place, saving us from Trump’s destructive whims.
"...it’s clear that we’re already in a constitutional crisis of frightening proportions. The Cabinet will not act. Congress, under GOP control, will not act. The internal 'resistance' can only do so much.
Voters are the last line of defense. You must save the day."
"We already know," said Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times on Sept. 7, "that many of Trump’s closest aides hold him in contempt." The op-ed reveals the rationalization of an enabler. Such a Republican "purports to be standing between us and the calamities that our ignorant and unstable president could unleash, while complaining, in the very same op-ed, that the media doesn’t give the White House enough credit. This person wants the administration to thrive because it has advanced Republican policy objectives, even as he or she argues that the administration is so dangerous that it must be contained by unprecedented internal sabotage." If any Republican senator wants to make a real difference, she suggests, they should vote against Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court. After all, a conservative majority on the court will stand between Trump and his legal troubles, giving the president "a measure of impunity. Republican senators who know the president is out of control have a choice — they can maintain a check on his ill-considered autocratic inclinations, or solidify right-wing power on the Supreme Court for a generation. It’s obvious which way they’ll go. Maybe they’ll tell themselves having adults in the room at the White House makes it O.K."
In an episode of WNYC's On The Media ("Adults in the Room," September 7, 2018), co-host Bob Garfield said that the White House appears to be taking the truth claim seriously and considers it a “mega-leak," which "corroborates the stories we’ve been hearing from anonymous sources for a year and a half.” Co-host Brooke Gladstone recapped some of those other stories: “For instance, Maggie Haberman talking to dozens of people (tallied, but not named) in countless news reports. We know that the Secretary of Defense has ignored the President on transgendered Americans in the military, and we know that the new Secretary of State John Bolton rushed through a joint summit declaration reaffirming NATO before Trump could get his hands on it. We’ve read in Bob Woodward’s book that the National Economic Council Director took papers off Trump’s desk to prevent him from undoing a South Korean trade deal.” Garfield thinks the anonymous op-ed is a kind of smoking gun. It is confirmation that “those previous reports were right all along. I think that is historic.” Gladstone disagreed. The anonymous op-ed "is just another headline" that the audience of On the Media already knows about; she believes her own show should focus on other issues to which she can contribute analysis.
An anonymous source said that Trump is 'obsessed' with identifying the op-ed writer.
Thomas Friedman pointed out in the Times that some people might support some of the Republican agenda and yet have nuanced disagreement with it. "I believe in a robust military and U.S. global engagement," he said. "But this does not automatically translate into support for a radically higher defense budget."
Also: While this was not a "response," as it was written over a year earlier, it's worth noting that Noah Millman predicted this situation in the American Conservative in 2017:
First of all, we may be in the middle of a quasi-coup already, in the sense that the military and the intelligence community may be preventing the President from conducting his own foreign policy (assuming that he has one, which at this point is highly doubtful). If the President continues to act in an alarmingly erratic manner, I don’t think it is far-fetched to imagine that the cordon around him will tighten further, to the point where an entire generation of senior leadership of the military and espionage services become accustomed to the notion that one of their key functions is to protect the country from its own president. This is precisely the scenario I worried about in my recent column. It is not obvious to me that four years of institutional insubordination is better for our democracy than a cabinet coup would be.
In November 2019, this person, still anonymous, published a book, A Warning. In that book, the person "even admits that the thesis of the Op-Ed in The Times — the essay that led directly to the existence of this book...was 'dead wrong,'" Jennifer Szalai writes in her review for the Times, since "attempts by the 'adults in the room' to impose some discipline on a frenzied (or nonexistent) decision-making process" utterly failed.
When Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., appeared in a February 2020 interview on the satellite-radio show co-hosted by Jim Norton and Sam Roberts, he bragged that "someone in the mainstream media will write an article" complaining that he had cursed on-air. Roberts asked him: "Did you ever think, though, that you’d get to be an adult, and then there’d be somebody who wanted to write a newspaper article that you used the F-word?" Trump Jr. replied: "No, I did not, because we’re not adults, guys. The reality is, like, there are no adults in the room anymore."
In September 2020, Bob Woodward published Rage, and he quoted Jared Kushner describing the Trump administration behind the scenes: "In the beginning, 20 percent of the people we had thought Trump was saving the world, and 80 percent thought they were saving the world from Trump. Now, I think we have the inverse...20 percent — maybe less now — think they're saving the world from the president."
In October 2020, Miles Taylor revealed that he was Anonymous.