Whodunit: Cracking the case of the anonymous NYT oped

We gathered clues, and followed any crumbs of evidence we could detect to lead us to the solution whodunit.

 US President Donald Trump is reflected in glass at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, on November 11, 2017 (photo credit: JORGE SILVA / REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump is reflected in glass at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, on November 11, 2017
(photo credit: JORGE SILVA / REUTERS)
It was a dark and stormy night – okay, fine, it was a typically sweltering Israeli September 5 – when an anonymous op-ed appeared on The New York Times from someone described as a senior official in US President Donald Trump’s administration.
“The game is afoot!” we declared, getting out our weather-inappropriate deerstalker hats, ready to make brilliant deductions like Sherlock Holmes, and examining the article with our handy magnifying glasses.
We gathered clues, and followed any crumbs of evidence we could detect to lead us to the solution to whodunit.
Our investigation gave us a web of information much like the newspaper-and-yarn-covered bulletin boards popular on TV and movie procedurals.
Seeking out the identity of the writer led us on an expedition that hearkens back to Donald Rumsfeld’s turn of phrase about “known unknowns” and “known knowns.” We don’t know what we don’t know. For instance, is it one author or multiple authors? How “senior” is this official? We did a textual analysis of this piece to get to the bottom of it.
The very nature of writing anonymously as a senior administration official is that one wants their words to have impact. What kind of person uses terms such as “hellbent,” “effective deregulation,” “unsung heroes,” “country first,” “lodestar” and “allied, like-minded nations?”
“Like-minded” appears twice. Who uses “like-minded”? We Googled “like-minded” and “Trump” and found only one recent instance where an administration official was quoted using this term. Reuters says on March 15, a “senior US Treasury official” said the administration would work with “like-minded” countries.
Next we looked at “hell-bent.” Another word you don’t usually use in normal conversation. But “hell-bent” turns up in relation to Trump often used by right-wing writers who support the president: “Liberals are hell-bent,” “Bannon is hell-bent,” or “hell-bent on imposing multiculturalism.” But it’s used on the other side of the aisle also.
“The Trump administration appears hell-bent on being the most destructive presidential administration in the history of the nation,” Derrick Johnson of the NAACP said in September 2017.
Where does the writer see him or herself – assuming there is only one writer – on the political spectrum? The writer says “his own” in relation to Trump’s administration and the Republican Party, not “our own.” That could mean the official preceded Trump’s election. They don’t see the administration as their own. But they do use the term “ours” when speaking of the attempt to shield America from Trump’s behavior. The writer says “ours is not” the popular resistance. The writer admires McCain, is against tribalism, and seems to think conservative ideas such as “free markets,” “free minds” and “free people” are ideal.
Also the writer says his, her or their work is not part of the “so-called deep state, it’s the work of the steady state.” What is a “steady state?” We looked into “steady” and who has used this word before. It turns out that a December 30, 2017 piece at Politico includes this quote. A “senior Trump administration official” who was speaking about Secretary of Defense James Mattis said “he recognizes that there’s a lot of turbulence out there and that his role as the head of the Defense Department is to make sure that our ship, so to speak, stays steady.” Then the word “steady” appears again, ascribing to Mattis “his mantra is ‘steady as she goes.’”
One word that others have set on is the term “lodestar,” which has been used many times by Vice President Mike Pence. Could lodestar have been put in the piece to throw us off track? Somehow, the idea of Pence talking about the “resistance” doesn’t ring true, though the talk about conservative values is his style.
It may be “off the rails” that points us in a new direction. This term shows up in Bob Woodward’s new book Fear: Trump in the White House. Chief of Staff John Kelly is quoted as saying “he’s gone off the rails, we’re in crazytown,” about Trump’s behavior. Of course, former secretary of state John Kerry also said the presidency had gone off the rails in an interview Wednesday. Kerry probably didn’t write the anonymous op-ed.
The op-ed is big on economic focus, and short on foreign policy. The term “effective deregulation” appears to dovetail with boasts from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about accomplishments of the administration. In April 2018 he talked about “regulatory reform” as a key component of the president’s plan. In November 2017, Mnuchin also said that “we are working with Congress to pass historic tax reform.” And in the op-ed we see “historic tax reform.”
We looked at the term “robust military” as well and it turns out Trump has used this term in a March 2017 speech. But the term “robust” likely is not Trump’s. In fact, an official working between Trump and the Pentagon told Reuters in February 2017 that Trump’s request for more money for the military represented “a more robust presence” in key strategic areas.
So what do we know at the end of all this? A “senior official” who supposedly was in the White House from the “early” time of the presidency. Someone who has been in meetings with Trump and who also had to rely on other “top officials” for quotes. Someone who didn’t want to resign, perhaps because they are a career civil servant but who took the risk to write this? Someone whose words and phrases appear to have been used before as sources from a “senior official” in media reports. But these words appear connected both to sources who spoke to the press about goings-on at the Defense Department Treasury and at the Chief of Staff level.
This could be a long-term leaker to the press or someone who is friendly with media people, who had personal friends from years in other administrations. Or it could be several people who penned this. Part of the op-ed reads like an economic analysis, while the last bit reads like a military speech with words like “first duty.”
Another theory is that the writer isn’t a moderate at all. It could be a double-cross by a hard-liner in the vein of Trump’s Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller. Trump’s “fire and fury,” to borrow his own term, in response to the op-ed was entirely predictable. Perhaps this was a way to prod the president into getting rid of those who disagree with him on major policy issues. Would an actual moderate mole in the White House have risked his, her or their efforts by going public when it was so clear it would drive Trump berserk?
Or maybe the solution is that everyone did it, like (84-year-old spoiler alert) in Murder on the Orient Express? In the end, all we’re left with are questions and a bunch of angry presidential tweets about “TREASON?”
But there’s at least one mystery we can solve for you: This was written by Seth Frantzman and Lahav Harkov, and we don’t actually own deerstalker hats.