The anonymous New York Times op-ed writer inside government thwarting Trump’s plans does not understand how government works. Amplified by worn accusations in Bob Woodward’s new book, the op-ed is nonetheless driving calls for Trump’s removal under the 25th Amendment to save America. But look closer: there are no patriots here, and little new; it’s all nasty politics.
You don’t join government to do whatever partisan thing you think is right; you serve the United States, and take an oath to a Constitution which spells out a system and chain of command. There is no Article 8 saying “but if you really disagree with the president it’s OK to just do what you want.”
I served 24 years in such a system, joining the State Department under Ronald Reagan and leaving during the Obama era. That splay of political ideologies had plenty of things in it my colleagues and I disagreed with or even believed dangerous. Same for people in the military, who were told who to kill on America’s behalf, a more significant moral issue than a wonky disagreement over a trade deal or a boorish tweet.
But the only way for America to function credibly was for us to work on her behalf, and that meant following the boss, the system created by the Constitution, and remembering you weren’t the one elected, and that you ultimately worked for those who did the electing. There were ways to honorably dissent, such as resigning, or writing a book with your name on the cover (my choice), and otherwise taking your lumps.
But acting as a wrench inside the gears of government to disaffect policy (the Washington Post warned “sleeper cells have awoken”) is what foreign intelligence officers recruit American officials to do, and that doesn’t make you a hero acting on conscience, just a traitor. It seems odd someone labeled a senior official by the New York Times would not understand the difference before defining themselves forever by writing such an article. (Then again, Sen. Cory Booker didn’t seem to know the documents he was so bravely disclosing were already declassified before he called the gesture his “I am Spartacus moment.”)
So don’t be too surprised if the op-ed author turns out to be a junior official not in a position to know what they claim to know, a political appointee in a first government job reporting second- or third-hand rumors—maybe an ex-Bushie in over their head. That will raise important questions about whether the NYT exaggerated the official’s importance, and thus credibility, and whether anonymity was being used to buff up the narrative by encouraging speculation.
Next up: sorting out the “new” facts forming the underbelly of calls to end the Trump presidency. The op-ed’s release was set by the Times to perfectly dovetail with Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear (It would be interesting to know how much of this was created by the Times — did the paper encourage the heretofore unidentified ‘patriot’ to write? Did they have to be persuaded? How much editing was done? How far from the role of journalism into political activism did the Times stray?)
Neither the book nor the op-ed breaks any new ground. Both are chock full of gossip, rumors, and half-truths present from Trump day one and already ladled out by Michael Wolff’s own nearly-forgotten book and Omarosa’s unheard recordings: the man is clinically insane, has the mind of a child, acts impulsively, and is thus dangerous. Same stuff but now 18 months shinier and sexier—Woodward! Watergate! Anonymous! Deep Throat! It’s clever recycling, a way to appear controversial without inviting skepticism by telling people what they already believe because they’ve already heard it. What seems like confirmation is just repetition.
There are plenty of accusations in Woodward’s book (“Trump is not smart“) that were quickly denied by those quoted (Jim Mattis and John Kelly, for example.) But one new item, the claim that Gary Cohn, Trump’s former economic adviser, walked into the Oval Office and snatched a letter off Trump’s desk, suggests how sloppy the reporting is. Cohn supposedly stopped Trump from pulling out of a trade agreement with South Korea by stealing an implementing letter, preventing Trump from signing it. Woodard writes Cohn did the same thing on another occasion to stop Trump pulling out of NAFTA.
“Paper” inside government, especially for the president’s signature, does not simply disappear. Any document reaching a senior official’s desk has been tasked out to other people to work on. The process usually begins when questions are asked at higher levels and then sent down to the bureaucracy; no president is expected to know it’s Article 24.5 of an agreement that allows withdrawal. That request creates a paper trail and establishes stakeholders in the decision, for example, people standing by to implement a decision or needing to know ahead of negotiations with Seoul POTUS changed his mind.
So paper isn’t forgotten. I know, I had a job working as the Ambassador’s staff assistant in London where most of my day was spent tracking letters and memos on his behalf. Inside the State Department an entire office known as The Line does little else but keep track of paper flowing in and out of the Secretary of State’s actual In/Out boxes. This isn’t just bureaucratic banality at work; this is how things get done in government, as documents with the president’s signature instantly turn into orders.
So even if, playing to the public image of a dotard-in-chief, Trump didn’t remember calling for that letter on South Korea, and thus never missed it after Cohn allegedly stole it to change history, a lot of other people would have gone looking for it. Stealing a letter off the president’s desk is not the equivalent of hiding the remote to keep grandpa from changing channels. And that’s to call the claim absurd even before noting how few individuals the Secret Service allows into the Oval Office on their own to grab stuff. While the example of the stolen letter is a bit down in the bureaucratic weeds, it is important because what is being widely reported, and accepted, is not always true.
The final part of all this which doesn’t pass a sniff test is according to the op-ed, 25th Amendment procedures to remove the president from office were discussed at the Cabinet level. The 25th, passed after the Kennedy assassination, created a set of presidential succession rules, historically used for short handovers of power when a president has gone under anesthesia. Most relevant is the never-used full incapacitation clause.
An 2018 interpretation of that clause made popular by TV pundits is now the driver behind demands that Trump is so stupid, impulsive, and insane he cannot carry out his duties, and so power must be transferred away from him today. While the op-ed writer says the idea was shelved only to avoid a Constitutional crisis, in fact it makes no sense. The 25th’s legally specific term “unable” does not mean the same thing as the vernacular “unfit.” An unconscious man is unable (the word used in the Amendment) to drive. A man who forgot his glasses is unfit (not the word used in the Amendment), but still able, to drive, albeit poorly.
The use of the 25th to get Trump out of office is the kind of thing people with too much Google time, not senior officials with access to legal advice, convince themselves is true. The intent of the amendment was to create an administrative procedure, not a political thunderbolt.
But intent aside, the main reason senior officials would know the 25th is not intended to be used adversarially is the Constitution already specifies impeachment as the way to force an unfit president out. The 25th was not written to be a new flavor of impeachment or a do-over for an election. It has to be so; the Constitution at its core grants ultimate power to the people to decide, deliberately, not in panic, every four years, who is president. Anything otherwise would mean the drafters of the 25th wrote a backdoor into the Constitution allowing a group of officials, most of whom were elected by nobody, to overthrow an elected president they simply think turned out to be bad at his job.
The alarmist accusations against Trump, especially when invoking mental illness to claim Americans are in danger, are perfectly timed fodder, dropped right after Labor Day into the election season, to displace the grinding technicalities of a Russiagate investigation. Political opponents of Trump had been counting on Mueller by now to hand them November amid a wash of indictments, and thus tee up impeachment with a Democratic majority in the House.
The op-ed does indeed signal a crisis, but not a Constitutional one. It is a crisis of collusion, among journalists turned to the task of removing a president via what some would call a soft coup.
Because it’s either that, or we’re meant as a nation to believe an election should be overturned two years after the fact based on a vaguely-sourced tell-all book and an anonymous op-ed.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from Federal employment and Twitter.