Editorial: Anonymous ‘Heroes’ Setting Dangerous Precedent

  • This photo shows an anonymous opinion piece in The New York Times in New York, Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. President Donald Trump lashed out against the anonymous senior official who wrote it, claiming to be part of a "resistance" working "from within" to thwart the commander-in-chief's most dangerous impulses. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The op-ed written by a senior Trump administration official that appeared anonymously in The New York Times last week — headlined “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” — was remarkable in several respects. But it probably won’t turn out to be the most influential article ever published anonymously. That distinction almost certainly belongs to the article that appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1947 under the byline of “Mr. X.” The piece, whose author turned out to be George F. Kennan, a high-ranking diplomat then serving in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, advocated that the United States follow a strategy of containment in its relations with the expansionist Soviet Union. That policy was embraced by successive presidents and pursued throughout the ensuing Cold War.

As John Cassidy noted in The New Yorker, the author of the Times op-ed also was, in a curious way, laying out a strategy of containment. The writer would have us believe that a band of “unsung heroes” among senior officials in and around the White House is diligently at work shielding the nation from President Donald Trump’s worst impulses and most reckless decisions.

“The root of the problem,” the writer says, “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.” Trump’s leadership style is described as “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective,” and he is said to engage in repetitive rants. But the writer assures the American people that amid this chaos there are indeed “adults in the room” who are “trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”

Count us unreassured. The article does not add much to the picture of the president’s erratic behavior drawn from his own tweets. A flood of leaks from the White House and Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, round out a picture of a leader who is untethered, if not outright unhinged. This is a scary proposition, and if many senior officials are, in fact, determined to thwart parts of his agenda, the publication of this piece of anonymous work is bound to undermine it by feeding Trump’s paranoia and that of his supporters. A “witch hunt” to determine the author’s identity is almost sure to ensue, endangering the jobs of those “unsung heroes” whose praises can’t be sung because, well, they have to be cloaked in anonymity in order to survive in office and save the nation.

The author claims that given Trump’s “instability,” there were “early whispers” in the Cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment to begin the process of removing him from office. This was not pursued because “no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.” It appears not to have occurred to the writer that the situation he or she describes in the op-ed is already a full-blown constitutional crisis: A group of senior officials is working secretly and in concert (and in this case mostly ineffectively) to undermine key parts of an elected leader’s program. The precedent being set is dangerous, and in the long run cannot but undermine the public’s faith in the democratic process.

In Great Britain, there is an honorable tradition of Cabinet officers who, for reason of principle, can no longer support the prime minister’s policies to resign and state their reasons before the House of Commons. This is rarer in American public life, but if ever there was a time for “senior officials” to heed the call of conscience and publicly report to Congress their reasons for resigning, that time is now.