The New York Times published an anonymous opinion article earlier this week that was breathtaking in the hubris and cowardice of the author. That is a rare and highly unattractive combination of character traits. The author claimed that senior political appointees inside the Trump administration are working actively to undermine Trump’s agenda.
The author (I’m going to call him Ano) claimed membership in a group of officials who secretly disobey orders. They substitute their judgment for that of the President. The question is: Who is Ano? Having seen many leakers over decades come and go (they all are exposed eventually), I can describe this one with confidence.
“A Senior Administration Official”
Ano identified himself (I believe it was a man) as a senior administration official. Some pundits have suggested that means the pool of suspects is limited to Cabinet officials and a handful of White House aides. Not so.
When I was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for policy and international affairs, I was asked by the Secretary to speak with a reporter “on background.” That meant my words would be used, but I was not to be identified by name. I was quoted as “a senior administration official.”
Any official at the level of Deputy Assistant Secretary or above could be called a senior administration official. In the State Department alone, there are nearly 450 people who fit that description. That is more than most departments have, but over 1,200 people in Washington could fit that description.
As a young Foreign Service Officer, I couldn’t imagine who would leak to the media, given the commitment and sense of duty we all felt. An older officer explained it one day: “It’s the political appointees. They come in with their own political agendas, and bicker among themselves over aspects of the President’s policies. They leak to advance those agendas, and to gain an edge over each other.”
I learned over the years that he was right. Career employees groused to each other, friends, relatives; they dragged their feet or waited for forceful direct orders. Sometimes they employed “malicious compliance,” i.e., following the letter of their instructions in a deliberately destructive manner. But they almost never talked directly to the media.
I believe Ano is a political appointee. He was a never-Trumper who opposed Trump during the primaries and perhaps even the general election, but after the election he got an appointment anyway, through a patron. His is not a household name, and he is not a principal of any department of agency. He considers himself a moral person, and is embarrassed by reports of amoral behavior by Trump.
Ano is a deputy, counselor or advisor to a principal, and probably has never met face-to-face with President Trump. Even his principal may not have much direct presidential face time. He is intelligent and has a top-grade education. He considers himself smarter than his principal and smarter by far than the President. He has heard his principal and colleagues express frustration with the President, and dissatisfaction with some policies.
He probably works in the State Department or the NSC, but is not a life-long expert in foreign affairs. However, he likely has lived or studied overseas and has family members who are foreign nationals or residents. His role is to be a strategist, an advisor, rather than a line manager. He may be occupying a position beneath what he thinks is his due. He may have been rejected for promotion to a higher position, with line authority.
Ano is between 45 and 55 years old: old enough to consider himself wise, but too young to know he isn’t yet. He has an independent source of income. Maybe he has family money, or a connection to a billionaire with an interest in policy, or both.
His political lodestar is moderation, preservation of the status quo, compromise. He hates being pigeonholed ideologically, and shuns political labels. He considers radical change a threat to democracy, and fears that too-rapid changes will send America off the rails.
Many writers have fingered senior officials, highlighting clues within the article that point to them. They use linguistic analysis to buttress their case. Ano used the word lodestar, a word frequently used by Vice President Pence in public speeches. The average sentence length of the article was 19 words, just over half the average for government writing. The sentences in Pence’s speeches and articles average 18 words in length.
Jon Huntsman is another accused, based on textual analysis. He was part of the No Labels movement, and is a known admirer of John McCain. Ano referred disparagingly to labels, and praised McCain. Huntsman is ambassador to Russia, and Ano mentioned Russia policy prominently. Ano used the word amoral, as has Huntsman on many occasions. Likewise, John Kelly was fingered by the presence of the expression “off the rails,” and James Mattis by another (which I’ve forgotten).
The trouble with all these linguistic “tells” is that they are easy to manufacture. I used every one of these words and phrases in this article. The length of the average sentence in my article is just over 18 words – just as articles by Ano and Pence. I spent only about 2 hours writing this; with more time I could have done it more cleverly. Ano spent lots of time on his article.
The one certain takeaway from the Anonymous article is that Ano represents a large number of people in the Trump administration. During the chaos of the transition, when entire teams of transition officials were replaced, many of President Trump’s opponents slipped into political appointments. Until he takes a more direct interest in his presidential personnel operations, he will be saddled with the dead weight – and direct opposition – produced by these senior officials.
The whole reason for political appointees is to place loyalists in senior positions who will execute the President’s agenda faithfully. No President can be everywhere at once. Trump was elected on a platform of promised actions, and he needs a team who will carry them out. Trump must clean house. That’s what we voted for.