So, what are we to make of this anonymous Op-Ed in the New York Times on September 5? (I don’t know if the link works for non-subscribers.) A few questions:

What is a “senior official in the Trump Administration”? The Times refuses to elaborate. What point is there to using words if you refuse to say what they mean? I remember Robert Bork offering a thought experiment:

I do not think you can use the ninth amendment unless you know something of what it means. For example, if you had an amendment that says “Congress shall make no” and then there is an inkblot and you cannot read the rest of it and that is the only copy you have, I do not think the court can make up what might be under the inkblot if you cannot read it.

The Times has put an inkblot over the rest of “senior Trump Administration official means ….” rendering the term meaningless if we assume that the Times wouldn’t publish an anonymous op-ed by anyone the readership would not view as senior anyway. The Times’s op-ed editor Jim Dao, in an interview with Brian Stelter of CNN, said: “We were simply trying to abide by the standard that the Times in general would use when referring to someone who’s not named.” On The Daily (the Times’s podcast), he added, “I feel that we followed a definition that has been used by our newsroom in the past.” One hears the anguished moans of turtles all the way down. FWIW, I will read “senior official” to mean “Trust us, this is big.” I can’t go all the way to “household name,” given the ignorance shown in about 40% of American households. But I’m thinking it’s a honcho. Still, there should be stated criteria, or there can be no “definition” that was used in the past, because that wouldn’t have been a definition either. On the contrary, there’s no denying it’s a non-definition definition.

Why an op-ed?

I heard Jeffrey Toobin say on CNN that this editorial is just an extended quote from an anonymous source. Why didn’t the Times op-ed editor say to the author “Go tell your story to a reporter”? Here, Maybe the Times was baited by the “Fake News” rap. The argument that Maggie Haberman, say, “made up” a source, or misquoted an unnamed source, is more likely to be believed by Trump’s hoopleheads than the claim that the editorial board fabricated an author. This is not an anonymous source; it is an anonymous author. The Trumpsters have, of course, floated the idea that the author doesn’t exist, but it just doesn’t have the same oomph when you can’t make what is said just one hated reporter’s version of what an unnamed source has to say.

Why anonymous?

I am more sympathetic to the author’s anonymity than many commentators. Some say the author — to whom I’ll refer with male pronouns to save myself keystrokes — should step up, give his name, and resign. Well, what happens then? One thing is that his best friends inside the White House become suspect, too. In another context, lawyers follow the maxim noscitur a sociis — a thing can be understood by the company it keeps. If we don’t know who the anonymous author is, we don’t know whom he eats lunch with or plays basketball with or sleeps with. The “resistance”depends on its participants not being found out; identifying one may identify all.

Then there’s the Murder on the Crazytown Express problem. Let’s suppose this author speaks for the entire coterie of resistors. Maybe the “author” who presented himself to the Times is an avatar for the entire group, which effectively ghost-wrote the book, like Naked Came the Stranger. It would be dishonest for the “author” to claim authorship.

Finally is a sort of fallacy of composition. It may well be that the author, if he is a real person and not the voice of many, could leave with no real damage done. But the standard critique we hear is that anyone who feels as the author does should resign. Thus, if this author should go public and resign, then all of his fellows must resign, too. Then who would be left to mind the store?

Why now?

Why expose this behavior, which, one must assume, will be rendered less effective going forward? Maybe Woodward’s book, in parts not yet shared with the public, exposes it. (The book release is scheduled for 9/11/18.) There are anecdotes in the publicly known parts of the book about Gary Cohn and Sec. Mattis effectively deep-sixing Presidential actions, on the theory that, having the attention span of a goldfish, Trump will forget he even wanted to do what didn’t get done. Maybe he only wants to say things should be done with no particular interest in whether they get done.

But whatever efforts are being made quietly to keep the truck on the road, those efforts are impeded by their revelation. Maybe the president will create some sort of Chief Compliance Officer for the staff, someone whose job it is to tell the Orange King when “Off with his head!” doesn’t result in a head being off.

That would not be a good thing.

Originally published at on September 9, 2018.

Self-description is not privileged.