Thirty-nine years ago this past summer, I was working in a dingy cubicle in a K Street office building in Washington, DC when the man with white belt and shoes walked by. I was working as an investigator for the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island and the man with white belt and shoes was a security consultant hired by the Commission to deal with a series of news leaks about our work. As a result, this consultant was overseeing the installation of an expensive video surveillance system, showing it off at that moment to the chief administrator for the Commission.
“Who do we think will try to break-in?” asked the administrator.
“Why the Washington Post of course,” replied the man with white belt and shoes.
I laughed out loud and the two men stared at me.
I have been a professional journalist now for 50 years and even 39 years ago I knew that the Washington Post could (and did) get any information it needed about our (confidential but unclassified) work by just staying until closing time at the local bar. No break-ins required, only alcohol.
There is a lot about the press that normal people don’t get, as this anecdote illustrates.
The fact is that press conspiracies are so rare that I’ve never actually heard of a real one. There’s too much competition for any two news organizations to conspire about anything. They’d rather kill each other.
So I am going to take a momentary break from writing about technology here to explain a very small aspect of what is going on right now with press coverage of President Trump. Specifically, I think the wrong questions are being asked about last week’s anonymous Op-Ed essay in the New York Times.
Had I been the opinion editor at the Times I would not have run the column without a byline. I’m sure they tried and tried to do it another way, but the obvious prospect that the column might have appeared, instead, in the Washington Post no-doubt bumped the Times editor straight into ethically ambiguous town. It’s all about competition, remember?
While the opinion section of the Times claims to know who Anonymous is, everyone else is trying to find out that writer’s identity. That’s the big question. And as White House staffer after cabinet secretary denies authorship, the list of suspects gets shorter and shorter.
But this is the wrong question.
It doesn’t really matter who wrote the essay. My personal opinion is that it had more than one author. Nobody is looking for two, three or more writers, yet that’s how nearly every piece of writing emerges from any White House. They are all collaborative works. Why should this essay be any different?
Multiple writers would allow each participant to deny being the author. And in a Bill Clintonesque sense they’d be correct. None of them are the writer.
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” But what, in this instance, constituted sexual relations? It’s slimy, I know.
The question that isn’t being asked, the question that is by far more important than anything I’ve read in the current discussion, is why did he/she/they write the column at all? What was their goal? What did they expect to happen as a result?
Was it to draw attention away from Bob Woodward’s new book? In a bizarre Trumpian way that almost makes sense, since every time there is negative news about the President he seems to successfully counter-balance it by tweeting something stupid about a supposed enemy. This guy insults himself out of trouble, which is certainly unique in American political history.
That’s the pro-Trump explanation, which is admittedly thin but crazier things have happened in this administration (look at the Mooch).
The obvious anti-Trump reasons for this Op-Ed are ostensibly to hurt the President’s image or at least to tell the public something they didn’t already know. But this is the President who boasted he could shoot and kill someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it. And he probably could. There’s no way this essay really hurts Trump with the public any more than he was already damaged. If pussy-grabbing didn’t take him down, this essay won’t, either. There are no minds really available for changing on ether side of this President: his supporters will continue to support and everyone else will continue to not support. Those lines were hardened long ago.
Given Trump’s vindictive nature and long memory, I can’t believe the motivation for this column was simply to taunt the President, either. Eventually the truth will out and — if he’s still in office — Trump will be savage in his response. It won’t be pretty.
My opinion why this anonymous column was written is simple: it was intended solely for an audience of one. The only reader the writer or writers cared about was Donald Trump. And the reaction the writer or writers seek is to drive the President over some edge. They seek to drive Trump into a response so severe that it ends his Presidency.
The column, itself, is the intended headshot. The writers want to drive the Trump insane.
And while it didn’t immediately seem to work, the days are early. This is a journalistic worm that will eat away at Trump for weeks or months. We have yet to see his real reaction, which may not come until after the mid-term elections, though I think that might be stretching it.
There are lots of hints in the piece, itself. They write several times about the end of Trump’s Presidency, never outright describing it but obviously predicting it and suggesting they’ll be around until the end (as “adults in the room”) just to make sure this kind of Presidency doesn’t happen again.
“Until his Presidency is over” is a peculiar expression, but that’s the author or authors’ clear goal — the end of this Presidency. And since they never allude to that end being at the ballot box, the implied result is that Trump will leave for some other reason, which most of the old Washington hands I still know say won’t be impeachment.
A deal-maker to the end, Trump will do something monumentally self-destructive then negotiate the first-ever Presidential golden parachute, finally Making America Great Again.