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What’s Motivating the Times’ Anonymous Op-Ed Writer Inside the White House?

Members of the media stand on the South Lawn of the White House, February 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

There really is no getting around it: This New York Times op-ed by a senior administration official is literally extraordinary — and also astounding and fascinating.

I agree with Ross Douthat that it was no-brainer for the Times to publish it, but whether the author should have written it is a far more debatable proposition.

First, if the Times hadn’t run it, the Washington Post or (maybe) the Wall Street Journal would have — and rightly so. Simply put: It’s eminently newsworthy (I am assuming the author truly is a senior official of sufficient standing to justify publication). It’s also more compelling than your typical op-ed fare, to say the least.

The far more interesting question is: What inspired the author to write it — and to write it now?

If you’re part of a secret cabal to contain the president’s erratic behavior, it seems counterproductive to notify the erratic president about it. What better way to fuel his paranoia and his persecution complex?

One possible factor: the Woodward book. Bob Woodward has let the cat out of the bag that members of the administration are doing precisely what the author claims. I understand that the official word from the White House is that Fear is a tissue of lies, but the op-ed author clearly doesn’t see it that way.

While I am still trying to figure out a high-minded and patriotic reason for why the author wrote this, it’s a little easier to imagine a self-interested reason for it. The author writes:

Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.

It seems plausible to me that the author is betting that when “it’s over,” there will be many recriminations. He — or she — has gotten out in front of that. The author is now on record with an explanation that may — may — seem less self-serving than if offered when the Trump presidency is over.

Indeed, the op-ed is consistent with my friend Brit Hume’s controversial interpretation of the Woodward book:

Brit’s gotten a lot of grief for this take, and I will admit I find his finger-pointing at “Never Trumpers” on the right to have some glaring flaws, the chief of which is that it’s a bit of a strawman. Most of the Never Trumpers and Trump-skeptics on the right that I know routinely express their gratitude that General Mattis and others are in the administration trying to minimize the damage and push optimal policies.

But Brit has a point. These people are doing a service to the country. It just seems to me the better interpretation and a more worthy target for Brit’s ire are the people — many of whom appear on Fox (where I am a contributor) — who constantly signal to both the base and our TV-addicted president that Trump should always go with his instincts and that his judgment is always correct.

The lesson of the Woodward book and this op-ed, it seems to me, isn’t that conservatives should drop their objections and criticisms of the president, but that they should make Republican voters demand a higher standard from him. Many of this administration’s greatest accomplishments — most obviously its judicial appointments — do not stem from the president’s principles or his instincts, but from a political calculation that there are some things he must do to maintain conservative support.

What is true of anonymous administration officials should also be true of Republican voters: Do what you can to get the best results possible from Trump rather than encourage him to just go with his gut whenever he feels like it.

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