A stunning New York Times op-ed piece written by an anonymous senior official in President Trump’s administration says there is a secret effort in the White House to keep Trump from harming the nation with his “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.”
“Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t,” the writer said.
The op-ed comes on the heels of revelations in “Fear,” a new Bob Woodward book, that describe a dysfunctional White House experiencing a “nervous breakdown.”
Who’s the author of the op-ed? It’s a question that has gotten many people poking through the text, looking for clues. The denials have come thick and fast.
But a senior official told axios.com, “There are dozens and dozens of us.”
Here’s a brief look, based on previous reporting by major media, at some of the highest-level officials in the administration who might have a motive or an inclination to write the letter:
Vice President Mike Pence
Pence has been unwaveringfuly faithful in public to Trump, some would say to the point of sycophancy, and the op-ed would be a massive betrayal, but he would certainly have a motive: He would take over the presidency if Trump left office.
Journalists speculated wildly about the use of the word “lodestar” (a little-used word that means “guiding star”) in the op-ed piece. Pence has used it in the past.
Chief of staff John Kelly
Kelly tried to bring order to a chaotic White House in the wake of the departure of Reince Preibus. Later reports said he had been sidelined and was poised to leave, but those were followed by reports he would stay through 2020.
Kelly’s demeanor during some of Trump’s public appearances has drawn attention. In Bob Woodward’s book, Kelly is quoted as saying of Trump: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Woodward, an associate editor at the Washington Post, also reported that Kelly told former economic adviser Gary Cohn that he shared Cohn’s anger over how Trump handled a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
The op-ed piece held up the late Senator John McCain, a Vietnam war hero, as a “lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue.” Kelly himself is a retired Marine general.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis
The op-ed said “many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
In Woodward’s book, Mattis is described as doing just that: Trump called Mattis, saying he wanted to assassinate the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, after Assad launched a chemical attack on civilians in April 2017. “Let’s kill the [expletive] lot of them,” Trump said. Mattis hung up and told a senior aide, “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.”
In a 2017 speech to troops, Mattis said, “Our country right now, it’s got problems we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
Mattis is also a retired Marine general, who might well have had a special affinity for McCain.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats
The op-ed describes a “two-track presidency.” Taking the foreign policy area as an example, it says that Trump has shown a preference for Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while “the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly.” It also describes Trump’s reluctance to expel Russian spies.
Coats has backed up the nation’s intelligence community even as Trump has expressed skepticism (notably in a jarring joint appearance with Putin) about the US finding that the Russians meddled with the 2016 elections.
In a memorable moment, Coats appeared to be astonished when he learned in a public appearance that Trump planned to invite Putin to Washington.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Sessions could certainly have plenty of personal animus against Trump, who has excoriated him in the media in an apparent effort to get him to resign. Trump attacked him as recently as this week.
Sessions appears to be happily carrying out parts of Trump’s agenda, including tough immigration restrictions, but there is one area where he has balked. He hasn’t shut down the Russia investigation.
Sessions has been targeted by Trump for Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the ever-widening investigation that is looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump has called the investigation a “rigged witch hunt” and wants it ended. Sessions is out of the loop because of his recusal.
Sessions issued a statement last month after Trump attacked the Justice Department, saying, “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”
“No nation has a more talented, more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the United States,” he said.
UN Ambassador Nikki Haley
Haley, who some see as future presidential material herself and possibly even a running mate for Pence, has diverged from Trump in some of her public statements, beginning as early as her confirmation hearing.
One particular area of divergence: her more hawkish view on Russia. In April, she announced Trump would impose fresh sanctions on Russia. A White House official blamed her statements on “momentary confusion,” and she fired back, saying, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
In another instance, Trump became upset over her criticisms of Russian intervention in Ukraine, The New York Times reported.
The op-ed released Wednesday discusses the handling of Russia policy as an example of where Trump and the “adults in the room” have differed.
Haley has also diverged from Trump by saying that women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct “should be heard.”
“I think any woman who has felt violated or felt mistreated in any way, they have every right to speak up,” she said.
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com