The New York Times’s Opinion desk published an Op-Ed by an anonymous senior official in the Trump administration on Wednesday. By Friday, nearly 23,000 readers had submitted questions to us about the vetting process and our thinking behind publishing the essay.
CLICK IMAGE for direct link to NYT story.
Our Op-Ed editor, James Dao, has responded to a selection of the questions, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Please continue the conversation in the comments of this piece.
Why did you publish this piece?
Why publish this? What purpose does it serve, other than to enrage its target and assuage the guilt of a collaborator? We have a mad king and a shadow government. This is a coup, not a heroic attempt to save democracy.
— Henry Matthews, New York
In our view, this Op-Ed offered a significant first-person perspective we haven’t presented to our readers before: that of a conservative explaining why they felt that even if working for the Trump administration meant compromising some principles, it ultimately served the country if they could achieve some of the president’s policy objectives while helping resist some of his worst impulses.
We’ve certainly read excellent news stories that quoted anonymous officials making similar points and criticizing the president’s temperament and chaotic style. What distinguished this essay from those news articles was that it conveyed this point of view in a fleshed-out, personal way, and we felt strongly that the public should have a chance to evaluate it for themselves.
The only way that could happen was for us to publish the essay without a byline. That was an extraordinary step for us, but the piece touched off what we believe to be an important national debate about whether the writer, and similarly situated Trump administration officials, are making the right choice (many of our readers clearly think they are not).
— Jim Dao
How did you find this writer?
Did The New York Times seek out the author of this piece, or did the author seek out The New York Times?
— Norma Buchanan, Billings, Mont.
The writer was introduced to us by an intermediary whom we know and trust.
— Jim Dao
How do you vet a piece like this?
How are you certain of the author’s identity?
— Martin Trott, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Through direct communication with the author, some background checking and the testimony of the trusted intermediary.
— Jim Dao
What does ‘senior administration official’ really mean?
Who qualifies as a “senior administration official” for The New York Times? How many individuals are there in the administration who fit the bill?
— Daniel Burns, Hyattsville, Md.
I understand readers’ frustration that we didn’t provide a more precise description of the official. But we felt strongly that a broader categorization was necessary to protect the author from reprisal, and that concern has been borne out by the president’s reaction to the essay. The term we chose, senior administration official, is used in Washington by both journalists and government officials to describe positions in the upper echelon of an administration, such as the one held by this writer.
— Jim Dao
Would you ever reveal your source?
Under what conditions would The New York Times be forced to disclose the source of the Op-Ed?
— Stephanie Genkin, Brooklyn, N.Y.
It is difficult to imagine a situation where The Times could be forced to disclose the author’s identity. The First Amendment clearly protects the author’s right to publish an essay criticizing the president, and absolutely nothing in the Op-Ed involves criminal behavior. We intend to do everything in our power to protect the identity of the writer and have great confidence that the government cannot legally force us to reveal it.
— Jim Dao
Were the writer’s motives considered?
Were the motives of the author considered when deciding whether to publish the Op-Ed?
— Samantha Combs, Pensacola, Fla.
Our first step in evaluating any submission is to look at the background of the writer and the quality and significance of the piece itself. But we do also take into consideration a writer’s motives as part of the vetting process.
It can of course be difficult to discern what those motives are, and in this case a combination of motives were undoubtedly in play, including the writer’s desire to defend the integrity of the president’s internal critics.
But we concluded that the author’s principal motivation was to describe, as faithfully as possible, the internal workings of a chaotic and divided administration and to defend the choice to nevertheless work within it. The resulting essay, we believe, is an important piece of opinion journalism.
— Jim Dao
Why did you publish it now? At a time when the country should be focused on the Kavanaugh hearings, the outcome of which will affect us for the next 30 years or more, you totally distracted everyone with a guessing game. This administration is placing our democracy in enough danger. Do you really need to play along?
— Paul Birkeland, Seattle
The simple answer is that we published when we did because the piece was ready to go and we saw no reason to wait. It certainly was not our intention to start a guessing game or draw the nation’s attention away from the Kavanaugh hearings.
The Op-Ed section considers the Supreme Court nomination to be of the utmost importance and, for that reason, has published numerous Op-Eds and columns about Judge Kavanaugh since he was nominated (including several just this week).
It was always our expectation that even if the Op-Ed created a splash, that the Kavanaugh hearings would remain a focus of media attention. And indeed, though the Op-Ed was the big news on Wednesday and Thursday, the hearings remained front-page news in The Times throughout the week. I should also point out that the actual vote on Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination could be more than a week away, leaving plenty of time for additional coverage.
— Jim Dao
Has this happened before?
You said publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay is a “rare step.” So does it mean that it was not unprecedented? Then what were other times when you made a call to run anonymous Op-Eds? What were your rationales back then?
— Dien Luong, Vietnam
It has happened before. Earlier this year, we published an anonymous essay by an asylum seeker whose name we withheld because she was concerned about gang violence against her family in El Salvador. In 2016, we published this Op-Ed by a Syrian refugee in Greece, using her first name only because her family in Syria faced threats. We also published in 2016 an account of the Syrian civil war by a writer in Raqqa using a pen name to protect him from being targeted by the Islamic State.
— Jim Dao
Did you consider the effect this piece might have?
To what extent did The Times consider the effect that publication of the piece would have in bolstering conspiracy theories about the “deep state” or QAnon, etc.?
— James Apps, Berlin
We did not take that into consideration. It is difficult to ever know what reportage might feed into a conspiracy theory. But the essay included a passage that indicates the author suspected the piece might be viewed as part of a “deep state” theory: “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.”
— Jim Dao