Anonymous anti-Trump op-ed enters uncharted territory in US politics | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 07.09.2018
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Anonymous anti-Trump op-ed enters uncharted territory in US politics

There are no neatly fitting historic parallels to the anonymous opinion piece by a senior Trump official published in The New York Times. However, there are indicators to help explain why this scandal is so significant.

How significant is the anonymous op-ed by a senior Trump administration official?

Questions about Donald Trump's fitness for office have long preceded his tenure as president. There was a theory, or at least a hope, especially among establishment Republicans, that Trump could be reined in by both the weight and tradition of the presidency, and by experienced Washington operators surrounding him — the so-called adults in the room.

But from inside what has been called "the leakiest White House ever" it quickly became clear that neither the "adults" nor institutional weight could seriously curtail Trump — a man who has come to be widely viewed in establishment Washington as an erratic, incompetent and at times dangerous president.

There have been many credible media accounts describing a changing cast of senior officials trying to reign Trump in, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Advisor HR McMaster. This phenomenon peaked early this year with the release of Michael Wolff's bombshell book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which detailed an administration in complete chaos.

But while the public has already become accustomed to high-profile Trump administration insiders complaining about their boss, the anonymous New York Times op-ed has a new quality, said Jennifer Mercieca, a political scientist who specializes in presidential rhetoric at Texas A&M University.

"This is now the third day of the [New York Times] op-ed news cycle," she said. "A three-day news cycle that Trump can't control is unheard of — he's controlled it since June 2015."

Another way to gauge the significance of the anonymous op-ed, explained Mercieca, is the large spike in Google searches for the 25th Amendment. The amendment is a constitutional clause that provides a process for the removal of a president "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." In the op-ed, the author described "early whispers in the cabinet" about invoking the 25th Amendment, but that this idea was ultimately abandoned.

Notwithstanding that stated rejection, said Mercieca, the op-ed could be viewed as an effort to familiarize the public with the concept of the 25th Amendment and ease the shock if the president's Cabinet would at some point decide to invoke it. 

USA, Washington: Archiv 1973, Die Reporter Bob Woodward und Carl Bernstein (picture-alliance/AP Photo)

Legendary Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal

Are there comparable instances in presidential history of a senior administration official writing an anonymous op-ed stating that the writer is "part of the resistance in the Trump administration?"

Not really. The firing of a National Security Council staffer who was discovered to be behind anonymous tweets that disparaged Hillary Clinton and other officials during the Obama administration is the most similar recent example. But other than the fact that an unnamed official lashed out against the White House, the cases are not really comparable.

"I don't believe there has been anything exactly equivalent to the anonymous op-ed from a presidential administration official in earlier United States history," said Robert Speel, a scholar of the presidency at Penn State University.

But when looking for a historical precedent in which key officials were secretly talking to the media behind a president's back, one quickly lands at the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal, said Speel. Adding to the parallels, both cases were triggered by the nation's leading newspapers— The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The current case began after The New York Times published the unnamed Trump official's op-ed, while the Watergate scandal famously revolved around a secret source nicknamed "Deep Throat" who revealed essential information implicating Nixon to legendary Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The identity of "Deep Throat" only became public in 2005, more than three decades after the politically motivated break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in 1972. It was the associate director of the FBI, Mark Felt.

Read more: Bob Woodward's new Donald Trump book no game-changer

Like in the Trump administration, senior officials in the Nixon White House repeatedly worried about the president's emotional stability. "During Nixon's final days in office, his secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, was reported to have told military leaders to get his approval before carrying out any unusual actions ordered by the president," said Speel.

Even further back, in the 1860s, an act of insubordination by a Cabinet member against a president led to the first impeachment in US history, noted Speel. After the assassination of Republican President Abraham Lincoln, Congress passed a law prohibiting his successor, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat who was more sympathetic towards slave owner interests than Republicans liked, from firing Lincoln Cabinet members without Senate approval. When Johnson tried to fire a Cabinet member who disagreed with his policies, he was impeached by the House of Representatives. He ultimately was able to remain in office after the Senate failed to oust him by a single vote.

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