An anonymous New York Times op-ed written by a senior Trump administration official was published on Wednesday. The person says they are working to frustrate the president because he is amoral, unprincipled, inconsistent, and dangerous. This author described themselves as an unsung hero who is part of the resistance, and the damning essay comes on the heels of an explosive new book about the Trump White House from award-winning journalist Bob Woodward.
Both the op-ed and Woodward’s reporting were subjects of this week’s Political Gabfest podcast from Slate, hosted by Emily Bazelon of the New York Times Magazine, John Dickerson of CBS This Morning and the Atlantic, and David Plotz of Atlas Obscura. Read a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, below.
David Plotz: John, let’s start with you. Why has this op-ed in the Times so captured the imagination? Does it really represent any change?
John Dickerson: I kind of feel like it’s basically a different form of what we’ve read in Michael Wolff’s book and what we are reading in Bob Woodward’s book. Instead of sitting down for an interview with an author and then having the author put it into a narrative, this person just sat down and wrote an op-ed. I think it’s worth noting that what this person is describing is an anti-democratic organization inside the White House to thwart the will of the people, by the way.
Emily Bazelon: A slow coup, effectively. It’s something that does not appear to be constitutional or within the parameters of separation of powers in our governmental structure as we know it, and yet, perhaps, crucial.
Plotz: Is this person an unsung hero or are they part of something? Is it heroic to undermine a very dangerous, unreliable, inconsistent president who’s a threat to the nation, or is it cowardly to hide anonymously and to not confront the president directly?
Dickerson: David Frum wrote a strongly argued piece saying, basically, this person should have come out and named themselves [in order to] be the first step in a constitutional response to the argument made in the op-ed, and the one made off the record to various journalists and to Bob Woodward, which is that the president is unfit for the job.
Bazelon: This is the 25th Amendment fantasy.
Dickerson: I hope I’m not doing any injury to David’s argument, but his argument is that people have to stand up and be counted, because that would then initiate the proper response to an administration. To not do so is actually worse because it creates paranoia in the chief executive and it just muddles things. [Tom] Nichols’ point, in responding, was if this person had said who they were, the conversation would immediately go—even more sooner than it already has—to a dissection of where they came from, whom they worked for, whether they had voted for Republicans all their life, whether they were an elite, whether they were not elite.
All of those questions would have taken away from the central point, which is that the president is morally unfit for the office, which is a central claim of the piece. I wonder what either of you thought about the fact that the piece basically says, Well, we’ve kept the president from doing all these horrible things, although it doesn’t really say what those horrible things are. I’ve heard that a lot in the course of this administration—officials saying, Oh, if we could tell you what we stopped him from doing. I say, “Well, OK, so tell me,” and they don’t. That actually, I find, incredibly underwhelming.
Bazelon: Well, isn’t that the conundrum, if I may use the word, about this piece? In order to avoid all the personalizing you just laid out, John, it has to have this level of abstraction, which then makes it impossible to evaluate what we really think about what the person is doing. It seems like, look, we’ve had some sense all along that people aren’t obeying every order President Trump gives, that it’s to some greater extent than other presidencies, but this made it feel like we had moved into this notion of a coup, which seems to have crossed some line. Yet we still don’t have the specifics to really know.
Plotz: Well, I disagree with you guys when you say we don’t have the specifics. We do have a number of specifics.
Bazelon: From Woodward’s book and from Wolff’s book.
Plotz: We know that Jim Mattis has delayed the transgender ban that the president proposed. Woodward’s book suggests that Gary Cohn at least made efforts to stop the president from withdrawing from NAFTA and from withdrawing from a South Korean trade agreement. Again, we don’t know, but we think we know that Don McGahn prevented the president from firing, who, [special counsel Robert] Mueller?
Bazelon: [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions.
Dickerson: Mueller and Sessions. And maybe [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein too.
Plotz: We do have at least a pretty decent knowledge of episodes that would have been damaging to the nation and damaging to our sense of how the country’s supposed to work. While it’s true the op-ed writer didn’t say anything specific, we do have evidence from other places that suggest [that].
Bazelon: How does that change the analysis for you? Does that make it feel like we already knew about this and we have essentially become comfortable with it as a way of containing the worst impulses of a very erratic and powerful man, or does it make you feel like this alarming?
Plotz: Well, I come back to the point that a Republican friend of mine made to me the other week—the White House should be filled with people who are loyally carrying out the president’s agenda and working to do what he was believed he was elected to do. These other branches of government, notably the legislature, should be working to monitor, check, limit what he’s doing. Again, what is overwhelmingly terrible, and alarming and evident, is that the legislature, and in particular the Republicans who control both houses of Congress, have been absolutely unwilling to challenge the president, and that continues to be the principal problem in the country. It’s not the problem in the White House. It’s the problem in the legislature, to my mind.
Dickerson: I just want to go back and underscore something Emily said, which I think is just exactly right about the op-ed itself. We’re trying to figure out what about the op-ed has a special magic or doesn’t. I think the abstraction allows it to have some authority in the sense that the author is the “everyperson,” or can be. The more specific it gets, the less anonymity is protected, and therefore, it never gets to the final [point], which is, We stopped the president from doing X, Y, and Z.
Bazelon: They make it sound like a conspiracy of officials within the administration who are working together.
Dickerson: Yeah. It’s not just policy disagreements. Maybe I’m imputing an argument that isn’t in it, but the fact that the Times felt it was necessary to run this anonymous op-ed and the weight it’s being given suggest this is not just [about things like how the president] runs bad meetings or he’s impetuous, but that we literally have been on the brink and been saved, which by the way, being on the brink is something Woodward quotes Rob Porter, the former staff secretary, as basically saying in terms of describing the chaos in the White House.
Plotz: You don’t think that blowing up the relationship with South Korea would be an absolutely catastrophic act, or to blow up NAFTA unilaterally would be a catastrophic act?
Bazelon: If he really had a sustaining preference for blowing up NAFTA or the South Korea agreement, stealing one letter off his desk wouldn’t take care of the problem. You could even argue that these conspirators in the administration—let’s use that word—are fulfilling his will in some larger way, and they’ve divined that his impetuous, momentary, whimlike proclamations are not supposed to be followed. Again, none of this is how we imagined the operation working.
Dickerson: You cannot have a presidency that has a cabal inside that is keeping the country safe. Congress—they should maybe look into this. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, essentially in response to the Times op-ed, said, “Yeah, this is what I’ve been talking about for a long time.” In fact, he has.
Plotz: Yeah, and he quit.
Dickerson: Well, right, exactly. The point is like, OK, this is what you’ve been talking about, but your role is to do something. Whether you’re pro-Trump and you think this is an anti-democratic cabal, or you’re anti-Trump and you think, “Gee, this is not a way to run a railroad, and it’s going to get America into a problem when it has to face a real crisis,” somebody should get in and sort this out. Guess whose job that is? That’s Congress’ job.
Bazelon: The other thing that really struck me from the Woodward book and this op-ed: Trump’s humiliation hit a new level. That’s what feels different to me. He’s being publicly flayed and just embarrassed. I didn’t feel sympathy for him in his response, but you could see it and feel it. It’s like a bear being poked in a cage, and that is really unsafe to me.
What I feel deeply confounded by and suspicious of is the virtue of this supposed unsung hero publishing this piece. If the point that you’re providing is this stealth, quiet—I am not using the word resistance; I think that’s ludicrous—cabal to contain the [president’s] worst impulses, announcing it, saying, “You don’t even fully grasp that this is happening” is going to trigger all his worst paranoia. All I can conclude is that this person either just convinced himself or herself that people needed to know somehow, or is after a book deal in two years—like there’s some really craven, self-serving impulse behind the whole thing because it just seems like the opposite of helpful.
Dickerson: That does not help Gen. Mattis in his dealing with—if you believe the premise of the op-ed, which is that there need to be these guardrails—the “adults in the room.” You’re not helping those adults. One of the things that somebody who is very close to [former] Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson told me about his initial days was that Tillerson had been told and was trying to act out the idea that he could never be seen as the adult in the room with this president, or else that would immediately get you on the bad list with the president.
The op-ed had a line that I found very powerful, which is in a sense offending the president—that the good things that have happened in the administration have happened in spite of the president and not because of him. What we know of this president is that he is very concerned about taking credit for things that he’s done and things over which he’s had no dominion, like the safety of U.S. airlines.
To hit him right there, because that’s been his rebuttal to Woodward, is essentially, like, even if this were all true, it doesn’t matter—unemployment is low. Manufacturing jobs are up. We’re talking to North Korea.
Plotz: One point that Ezra Klein made is that this op-ed is not, in substance, that different from all the leaking that people in the White House are constantly doing to reporters, and from all the leaking they’ve now done to Bob Woodward. Does it in fact represent something different than that ass covering and reputation protecting that’s being done in these other cases?
John, you’re a deep scholar of Washington, and you’ve seen Woodward at work your whole life, essentially. What impact do you think this book might have, if any? What’s its value to history or to the present or to anything?
Dickerson: We know [Woodward’s] quite thorough. All these conversations are recorded. In speaking to administrations in the past who’ve had to deal with him when he’s written books, what happens at first is they don’t want to cooperate. Then he comes in and says, I have these documents and this memo and this thing, and he’s able to paint the picture of a moment using authenticated documents and statements about what was happening. Then the administrations think, OK, he’s got what’s happened, so we need to participate in order to kind of try to shave off the rough edges. I think it has a powerful effect. I think that things that are said in the book, it’s not just hearsay.
There’s a lot of this to come, and it will initiate a series of responses. I think you could argue the op-ed is maybe a response to the book. Maybe not; we don’t know the timeline. I think that it will create its own set of reverberations. It’s also happening in a context, which is that this is not the first time we’ve heard these stories. I think that it ends up, because of where it is and who wrote it, being a kind of definitive look, even though the president’s defenders would say, “Absolutely not.” Because of all that’s come before, people are basically saying, “This has the ring of truth.”
Bazelon: What do we make of [John] Kelly and Mattis’ absolute denials in the context of all of this?
Dickerson: Well, the denials are so blanket. Sorry, they’re not so blanket.
Bazelon: No, they’re specific.
Dickerson: Right, so the truth of what is reported may be correct, but a word might be off, and that gives you the hole through which to make your denial.
Bazelon: You think? I don’t read denial like that. I think [a denial] is, “I did not say these things, and I did not speak to this person.”
Dickerson: Your point is that the denial is not just the specifics, but the entire spirit—“I did not say this specific thing nor anything like that.”
Bazelon: I assumed that Kelly was lying, but I paused on Mattis just because I don’t think we can tell that Woodward actually spoke to Mattis, right?
Dickerson: David Martin of CBS reported that they did not speak.
Bazelon: Right. In that sense, it did make me wonder if it was possible that people hadn’t misreported Mattis’ remarks, and if it seems like Mattis could have said things like that but they didn’t actually come from him. I don’t know how much it matters, but David, you think I’m just being naïve?
Plotz: I don’t know. Mattis continues to strike me as the most honorable person in this administration, and he’s also been pretty quiet. There hasn’t been a lot coming out from him.
Bazelon: I could imagine he’s had thoughts like that, but I actually do imagine it’s possible that he didn’t say things like that out loud.
Plotz: Was he the one who [compared the president to a] fifth- or sixth-grader?
Bazelon: Yes, which also just seemed not like [him]—I mean, you’re the Mattis watcher.
Plotz: Spoken like a man who doesn’t have children because I have a fifth-grader who is so much more morally capable. Mattis has it wrong about what fifth-graders are like.