On Aug. 10, 2017, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Axios wrote a story about a close group of Washington insiders — senior officers who sought quietly to restrain President Trump from his worst inclinations, and thereby shield the nation from disaster. VandeHei and Allen named the unsung heroes, dubbing them the “Committee to Save America”: White House chief of staff John Kelly; National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster; Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford; economic adviser Gary Cohn; and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell.
Ten days later, Allen provided an update: “Why they stay.” On the heels of Trump’s Charlottesville debacle (when he praised at least some neo-Nazis as “very fine people”), Axios spoke with half a dozen unnamed senior administration officials, to ask them why they didn’t resign from the administration. Their answers, briefly paraphrased: “You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill.” “Gen. Mattis needs us.” “Trump's not as evil as portrayed.”
On Aug. 23, 2017, columnist Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times about “Trump’s Afghan Illusions,” leading off with a fly-on-the wall point of view:
Here was Donald Trump tethered by his generals. The new-old Afghan war strategy set out by the president Monday night contained a Trump line or two — terrorists as “losers, the nixing of “nation-building” — but was the work of the adults in the room. They forced the commander-in-chief to curtail his wilder instincts. [Emphasis added.]
That same day, Trump provided his own fresh example of the reported dynamic. Fuming over North Korea’s latest missile launch, he tweeted, “Talking is not the answer!” The president implied his readiness to bomb North Korea into radioactive dust. His fingers itched to be on that big red button.
Without mentioning the president, Mattis promptly issued a public statement. “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” he said.
A week later, Gregg Jaffe and Dan Lamothe of the Washington Post identified Mattis as Trump’s most canny adult-in-the-room:
Away from the cameras and apart from the nonstop drama of the White House, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has come to play a role unlike any other Cabinet member. The retired Marine general has become a force for calm, order and, in the eyes of the president's critics, quiet resistance to some of President Trump's most combative and divisive instincts…. [Emphasis added.]
* * *
Fast forward to Sept. 5, 2018 — one year after VandeHei and Allen first identified “the adults in the room” — when the New York Times published a scathing indictment of Donald Trump’s leadership from inside the administration. James Dao, the paper’s op-ed editor, identified the author as “a senior official ... whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure.”
Since 1996, when I said that Joe Klein was the "Anonymous" who wrote the novel “Primary Colors” and he said he wasn't, I seem to be the go-to guy for saying who wrote what. Usually it's the police or Department of Justice who ring me up, not the press. But with a puzzle like the Times op-ed, journalists may want to know whodunit. Within days, my email inbox was stuffed with queries, asking me to identify the author. But contrary to reports, I have no "computer program" to identify anonymous authors. It's hard work, fraught with perils, and I'm retired. I opened a few of the messages, retained a few, deleted the rest. I saw no upside to getting involved. Like everyone else though, my curiosity was hooked.
On the evening after the Times op-ed hit the internet, Donald Trump was still so upset by it that his anxiety produced a hilarious Freudian slip. Speaking Thursday evening to a pro-Trump crowd in Montana, he proclaimed:
The latest “act of resistance” is the op-ed published by the failing New York Times, by an anominous — really, an ominous, gutless — coward. You just look. He was — nobody knows just who the hell he is, or she, although they put he, but probably that’s a little disguise, that means it’s she. But for the sake of our ... national security, the New York Times should publish his name at once. I think their reporters should go and investigate who it is, that would actually be a good scoop.
A good scoop indeed, so let the guessing game begin!
* * *
For convenience, let’s just reference the author — him or her — as “Anonymous,” with a politically incorrect masculine pronoun to signify either him, her or they.
The first question to ask is not Who wrote it? but rather, Who is the “I” of the narrative? The two questions are not, as most laymen assume, identical. In literary studies, we make a useful distinction between “the I of the narrative” on the one hand (the speaking subject within the text, whether fictional or autobiographical, male or female, left or right) and the “I of the text” on the other (the author or authors who produced the document).
The initial project is therefore not to identify the author, but to determine, Who in hell does Anonymous think he is? And that question is easy to answer, because he tells us:
It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t. [Emphasis added.]
The I of the narrative has spoken: Remember that Roger Cohen op-ed, a year ago? Cohen understands me. I am one of the senior officials whom he had in mind.
… many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump's] agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them. … Having provided quiet resistance to the erosion of our great democracy, my duty now compels me to speak. [Emphasis added.]
Remember the pieces, same month, by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen? By Jaffee and Lamothe? Well, I can tell you: They, too, were right on the money.
By echoing their language, Anonymous proclaims himself to be numbered among those whom VandeHei and Allen called the unofficial Committee to Save America — though he may, of course, be lying.
* * *
Dan Bloom, a producer for the podcast company Panoply, was among the first to name a person of interest, by honing in on what seemed like an unusual word choice. The op-ed writer calls the late Sen. John McCain a “lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue.” Searching online archives for any official in the White House who has used lodestar, Bloom found several instances in public orations by Vice President Mike Pence. From that, he made the obvious inference — that Anonymous may be a speechwriter for Mike Pence, or the V.P. himself.
Not so fast. ProQuest Congressional (the only comprehensive database of congressional documents) returns 445 hits for “lodestar,” and the Government Publishing Office returns 690, all but a few of which are by someone else — as in the 2006 Senate hearings on human rights and torture, in which Pence receives no mention while McCain, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Mattis are mutually praised for endorsing “the UCMJ and the Geneva Conventions,” which “should again become the lodestar.”
The use of a single word is not “evidence.” It’s just clickbait. I mean, c’mon: Mike Pence?! He would sooner clean Donald Trump’s golf shoes, with his own tongue, than write such stuff as that op-ed. “Lodestar,” and the vice president’s supposed fondness for the word, gets us nowhere.
But what other words matter, if any? Most of the words and phrases in the op-ed are commonplace, language used by all of us, on occasion or even daily. Anonymous may be a rotten speller or have quirky punctuation — evidence that could be extremely helpful in determining a match — but all that evidence gets wiped out by copy editors.
William Saletan in Slate published his own theory — focused on ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman — citing a vague thematic parallel between the op-ed and a letter to the editor Huntsman wrote to the Salt Lake Tribune in July. He also points out that last year, "at his confirmation hearing, Huntsman repeatedly denounced Russia’s ‘malign activity,’” drawing a connection to Anonymous’ use of “malign behavior” in the op-ed.
First off, I have examined the hearing transcript in full: It contains one "malign activity," by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and one "malign influence," by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., but none of either by Huntsman. Huntsman did go on to use the phrase in media appearances, but “malign activity” appears more than 100 times in the Congressional Record for 2017-2018 alone. And again, a single word doesn’t count as solid evidence. Same for Saletan’s riff on Huntsman’s “moorings,” “impetuous” and “inclination.”
It doesn’t work to begin with a suspect and then look for evidence to support the hypothesis. That way lies madness. To narrow the field, I have examined the language of every plausible candidate — including Pence, Mattis, Kelly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA deputy director Vaughn Bishop, White House political director Bill Stepien, Nick Ayers, who is Mike Pence’s chief of staff, and Andrew Bremberg, who is an assistant to the president.
Based on that research, a few two-word phrases are of interest. Citing John McCain’s farewell letter to America, Anonymous praises the fallen hero’s commitment to shared values. But he’s winging it: neither word, shared or values, actually appears in McCain’s letter.
In his duties as secretary of defense since January 2017, Mattis has often been called upon to address foreign dignitaries, at home and abroad. On nearly every such occasion, he has underscored America’s “shared values” with other democratic nations. But consider the context. Mattis has been put in an awkward position. Our president has been hurling insults at our allies while praising such autocrats and dictators as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte. Our closest allies now fear that America may no longer be willing to lead the free world, honor joint defense agreements, support free trade or even defend democracy itself without reimbursement. Under such circumstances, what responsible and patriotic defense secretary would not reassure our allies of our “shared values”?
Another, possibly more seductive, clue: Anonymous, expressing his dismay over what he calls Trump’s “amorality,” alleges that “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision-making.”
During his first 20 months in office, Defense Secretary Mattis has frequently called for a return to the “first principles” upon which our nation and his own personal code of honor were founded: “I like going back to first principles” … “if you go back to first principles” … “It's good to go back to first principles.” … “pause and recall first principles.” Again and again: “just a reminder, sometimes, to go back to first principles.”
That doesn’t mean Mattis is Anonymous, but if asked he would surely applaud the writer’s commitment to doing what’s right, in accord with first principles and shared values.
* * *
Our next clue actually comes from one of the passages Saletan focused on, when a horrified Anonymous speaks of Russia’s “malign behavior” (every reported instance of which Donald Trump has denied or excused). The word “malign” by itself couldn’t tell us much, but the exact two-word phrase from the op-ed is of interest.
Digital archives turn up fewer than 20 leaders in Washington whose use of “malign behavior” appears in the official records of the United States government during the Trump era. Most (including Mattis) use it in reference to Iran. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., mentions the “malign behavior” of North Korea. Twelve speakers note the “malign behavior” of Russia. These are Rex Tillerson (secretary of state until he was fired); Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.; Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; Massachusetts State Sen. Jim Welch; Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.; retired Army Gen. Jack Keane; Assistant Secretary of State Yleem Poblete; and an anonymous but identifiable “senior administration official” (on Aug. 30, 2018) — one mention each.
Both Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis have used the phrase repeatedly in reference to Russia, as in this representative instance in a July 2018 letter from the secretary of defense to his friend and ally John McCain: “Russia should suffer consequences for its aggressive, destabilizing behavior,” writes Mattis. But “as we impose necessary and well-deserved costs for their malign behavior,” the State Department must also be given waiver authority; else the sanctions risk “boxing us in.” (Emphasis added.)
Still, even put together, “malign behavior,” “shared values” and “first principles” (and “robust military,” a Mattis favorite) don’t rise to the level of proof.
* * *
Rare words and phrases may be especially telling when they point to what a person of interest has been reading.
Take “tribalism trap,” one of two really unusual phrases in the op-ed. This is the first time that exact phrase has appeared in the pages of the Times in the newspaper’s entire 167-year history.
Anonymous writes: “Senator John McCain put it best in his farewell letter. All Americans should heed his words and break free of the tribalism trap, with the high aim of uniting through our shared values and love of this great nation” (emphasis added).
Here’s what McCain actually wrote: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.”
McCain’s own phrase, “tribal rivalries,” appears fairly often in the Congressional Record, chiefly in reference to tribal conflict in developing nations. But “tribalism trap” is so rare a term that one must search far and wide to find a second instance. Donald Trump would doubtless say that someone just made it up. And in fact, someone did. The phrase can be traced to James A. Thompson, a young scholar who in 1987 set out to explain how social entrapment, strong identification with one’s tribe, can perpetuate military competitiveness and create among hostile nations a disincentive to disarmament (“Tribalism and the Arms Race”).
Thompson’s essay was accepted for publication in 1987 but went unpublished for 20 years; during which time, the Citations Index indicates only one other person who ever read it.
The term pops up again in a 2016 essay, “Freedom of Expression and National Security” by Jacob Mchangama, the director of Justitia, a Copenhagen think tank. Mchangama considers “the issue of freedom of expression and national security, which easily falls into the ‘tribalism trap’ that engulfs so many debates on free speech.”
Does this mean our author is close with Thompson or Mchangama? No, but it suggests Anonymous may be conversant with even the most arcane scholarly literature concerning national security issues.
Another oddity. Anonymous writes: “We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t. The result is a two-track presidency” (emphasis added).
This is a second phrase that appears in the Times for the first time in 167 years. Someone made up that phrase as well, and he can be safely identified. Ralph Nader — yes, that Ralph Nader — coined the term in 1977: “If the lessons of recent Washington history are to be heeded,” he wrote, “Jimmy Carter should be launching a two-track presidency.” (Nader goes on to explain: on one track, the president must address social ills; and on the other, build participatory democracy.)
Nader again, in 1992: “If Clinton is serious about putting people first, he must pursue a two-track presidency”: Address problems. Build democracy.
Nader again, in 2008: Obama’s goal “should be a two-track presidency, dealing with issues day to day, and strengthening the fiber of democratic society.”
Following his failed presidential bid in 2004, Nader was asked what he would have done, had he actually been elected. Nader replied on the instant: “I would have developed a two-track presidency.”
If, today, you Google the phrase two-track presidency, all hits will reference either Ralph Nader or the Times editorial. Next, try searching journalistic, academic and political databases. Same result. The one unexceptionable exception is a February 2001 op-ed by Richard Reeves, who borrows Nader’s signature phrase in order to poke fun at “Georgy Boy Bush, the giver of nicknames for all he meets.” The only other near-hit appears in the scholarship and journalism of Julian Zelizer, a highly distinguished professor of U.S. political history at Princeton University, who clearly adapted his term, “dual-track presidency,” from Nader.
Ralph Nader did not just invent the phrase, “two-track presidency.” Ralph Nader owns it. So it’s a big surprise to find his private meme popping up in the Times op-ed.
Or maybe not such a surprise. The most underreported story of Jim Mattis’ remarkable career is that of his own abortive third-party run for president in early 2016. As Trump knocked off his GOP rivals one by one, a group of frustrated conservatives agreed that Mattis was the nation’s best and perhaps only viable alternative. Their dream ticket: Jim Mattis for president, Condoleezza Rice for V.P.
Asked repeatedly by reporters about the effort, Mattis always demurred. But the speculation went on for long enough that it seems the general at minimum gave the prospect real consideration, before he finally squashed the possibility more than two months after the speculation gained steam.
Jim Mattis often told his own Marines to read widely, taking something useful from everything they read, as per his own practice. If one were considering a third-party run for president, wouldn’t one of the first lines of research be the campaigns of previous third-party candidates? In his op-ed for the Times, Anonymous takes Nader’s metaphor as a figure for a political train wreck: “we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t. The result is a two-track presidency.”
Anonymous may not be running for president, but it does looks as if he has spent some time reading Nader.
* * *
Let’s turn to a question asked by the president after the op-ed was published: “Notice timing?”
Or to put it another way: Why now? Why Sept. 5, 2018?
One answer: With the death and burial of John McCain, Anonymous has lost a friend and ally in a time of crisis, another member of the “resistance” and one whose honor, decency, independence of mind and love for America must be suffered deeply as a loss. White House observers have noted that Donald Trump in recent weeks has seemed increasingly isolated, alienated, alone. He may not be the only one in the White House who feels that way.
Bob Woodward’s book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” is another, perhaps more urgent, prompt for Anonymous to speak. Various members of the so-called Committee to Save America may stand exposed and vulnerable to censure for having spoken too freely to Woodward concerning the lunatic in the Oval Office.
The Washington Post released its excerpts from the book at 6 a.m. on Sept. 4. Among those caught blushing were John F. Kelly, who is quoted calling the president an “idiot,” and Mattis, who is said to have said Trump has the understanding of a “fifth- or sixth-grader.”
In an 11 a.m. statement put out by the White House, Kelly issued a flat denial: “The idea I ever called the president ‘an idiot’ is not true. In fact it's exactly the opposite.” He added, “He and I both know this story is total BS.”
That’s him, all right. Last April, NBC reported that Kelly had said to his aides, many times, that women are more emotional than men. Kelly issued a statement: “I spend more time with the president than anyone else and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship. He always knows where I stand and he and I both know this story is total BS.”
When the Woodward story broke, Mattis could not be reached: He was over the Pacific, flying from San Diego to New Delhi, accompanied by Idrees Ali of Reuters, Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg and Ryan Browne of CNN. Shortly after takeoff, Mattis invited them up front for a press gaggle, with a live transcript being transmitted to Washington. AFP published excerpts at 5:11 p.m. Eastern time, and a full transcript on Sept. 5. Mattis spoke at length of India and our “shared values,” but made no mention of the Woodward book, nor was he asked about the scandalous quotations. The journalists on board knew nothing about it. Neither did Mattis.
After the reporters retired to the rear of the jet, Mattis took a call, quite possibly from Gen. Joe Dunford, who was then in Islamabad with Mike Pompeo, secretary of state. The call concerned Mattis’ alleged remarks about the president.
The Pentagon press office moved swiftly to contain the damage, issuing a denial in the secretary’s behalf.
Statement by Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis
Sept. 4, 2018
Release No: NR-256-18
The contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward's book were never uttered by me or in my presence. While I generally enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility.
While responsible policy making in the real world is inherently messy, it is also essential that we challenge every assumption to find the best option. I embrace such debate and the open competition of ideas. In just over a year, these robust discussions and deliberations have yielded significant results, including the near annihilation of the ISIS caliphate, unprecedented burden sharing by our NATO allies, the repatriation of U.S. service member remains from North Korea, and the improved readiness of our armed forces. Our defense policies have also enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress.
In serving in this administration, the idea that I would show contempt for the elected Commander-in-Chief, President Trump, or tolerate disrespect to the office of the President from within our Department of Defense, is a product of someone’s rich imagination.
Trump tweeted the entire statement at 3:37 p.m., seven hours before Mattis and his entourage touched down on the tarmac at India’s Palam Airport. The statement was, of course, unsigned, having come from overseas.
Ali, Browne and Capaccio learned of the Washington Post article after the press gaggle had ended. They were given a copy of the Mattis statement before landing in New Delhi. But they could not ask questions: Mattis was whisked away and declined to speak to his press entourage for the rest of the trip.
On Sept. 11 a reporter from Task and Purpose was finally able to ask Mattis the inevitable question. Ryan Browne reports that Mattis replied: “Of all days, this is not a day to discuss politics.” Browne asked about the defense secretary’s relationship with the president. “No problem,” said Mattis. “It’s been the same all along.”
Pentagon news release NR-256-18 may have been composed and dictated by Mattis while in flight. That middle paragraph — which deals with policy issues and has nothing whatever to do with the Woodward book — sure sounds like him. But the bookended denials, top and bottom, puzzle me. The denial may be exactly true: end of story. Or the Woodward quotations may be accurate, and Mattis’ memory faulty: an honorable lapse of memory. Woodward in “Fear” may have accurately quoted White House insiders who misquoted Mattis: a definite possibility.
But what if the quotations, as read to Mattis over the telephone, were not identical to those in Woodward’s book? Woodward says you called Trump a liar and a f***ing moron. Mattis could deny the quotes in good faith; the Pentagon could save him from being fired; and Mattis would be unable later to walk back what he thought was a truthful denial – especially when he is now on record having described the alleged quotations as “contempt for the elected Commander in Chief.”
Or what if a Pentagon spokesman pulled that middle paragraph from the secretary’s written reports, with the rest having been drafted on the secretary’s behalf for immediate release? — a “Mattis statement,” and then some!
Such speculation is unfruitful.
Now that the Pentagon has issued an unsigned statement in his behalf, I would not expect Mattis to issue another statement contradicting it. But let’s reserve our judgment about what Mattis thinks of Bob Woodward’s book until some lucky reporter gets the defense secretary to say in his own words that the unsigned denial ascribed to him is indeed his: that is, all three paragraphs.
* * *
At this point, I have mentioned a few reasons why Mattis may be Anonymous. And as I said, I’ve examined the language of the other likely candidates and found no similar connections.
But here’s one reason Mattis may not be Anonymous. Why should anyone suspect Mattis’s authorship of the op-ed when he’s halfway around the world? Perhaps Mattis himself can help us out with that.
We have for-the-record, first-person denials from other White House officials, high and low.
Here is what we have heard about the op-ed controversy from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis: Not one word.
On Sept. 6, while Mattis and Pompeo were in meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, press queries for Mattis were deflected to Tom Crosson, a deputy director of press operations for the Defense Department, who had this to say: “I can tell you that Secretary Mattis did not write the op-ed.”
I don’t know Crosson, but this much we can say with certainty: Asked about Stormy Daniels, he can tell us that Bill Clinton and Donald Trump and Secretary Mattis did not have sex with that woman. He can tell us that Donald Trump does not have a tanning machine or a television in the White House. He can tell us that the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and the cow jumped over the moon. Crosson is a press agent for the Pentagon. He can tell us anything he wants. That doesn’t mean we’re obliged to believe him.
Pompeo, for his part, condemned both the author and the New York Times, saying that editors Dean Baquet and James Dao “should not have well chosen to take a disgruntled, deceptive, bad actor’s word for anything.”
Now that Mattis has returned from Asia and settled back into his Pentagon office, I can hardly wait until someone from the press — or Trump himself — interrogates him about the Times op-ed. If Mattis says yes, he may be fired. If he says no, he may be telling the truth. Or he may be lying. Or, if he has a good lawyer, he may well be advised to say, “I don’t recall.”
* * *
Donald Trump, president of the United States: “If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!”
Others have said worse. Can any epithet be too harsh, too vile, too damning, for a White House insurgent? Shall not all Americans who are loyal to President Trump be outraged by one who would throw snowballs at the emperor’s unguarded fanny and yet not stand forth to be hanged, drawn and quartered?
Whatever else he may be, Anonymous clearly thinks himself a pretty good guy, a patriot and a protector of the nation. So the venom issuing from the White House may have made it much harder for him to 'fess up, especially if he truly is a gutless coward. In this toxic climate, what chicken-hearted wimp would dare step from the shadows and say: “Ecce Homo: Tis I”?
If, however, Anonymous has a strong sense of personal honor, then those who have sullied his name and character should be prepared to duck.
In 1804, Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr “a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” Burr, to defend his honor, challenged Hamilton to a duel, and shot him dead.
In 1827, Sen. John Randolph accused Secretary of State Henry Clay of “crucifying the Constitution.” Clay challenged Randolph to a duel. Clay accepted. Both men fired and missed.
Well, that was the 19th century. The big boys cannot be allowed to carry on like that anymore. But I’m sure of this: Jim Mattis doesn’t miss much.
Jim Mattis would never shoot a fellow American for having insulted his intelligence, courage, logic or professionalism. A charge of “treason,” though, that’s harder to forgive. He’s no traitor. And he has a pretty vigorous support group. No living U.S. soldier commands more respect from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and from the rank and file than James “Mad Dog” Mattis. (A nickname the secretary reportedly dislikes, and that those close to him do not use.)
If I were Donald Trump at this moment, I would not be worried about impeachment. I’d be sweating a military coup.