We learned this week that the “senior administration official” who trashed President Trump in a 2018 op-ed under the name “Anonymous” was, in fact, fairly far removed from the center of power as a mere deputy chief of staff to the Secretary of Homeland Security. “I think many people were under the impression — I know I was — that the article was written by somebody with a much more senior role,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl complained on Wednesday’s World News Tonight.
If the Times had given readers a more precise description of the op-ed’s author, though, it’s unlikely anyone would have cared. It was the description of a “senior administration official” that teased the imagination; “senior” being the key word that suggested real proximity to the President, such as a cabinet secretary, prominent West Wing adviser or even Vice President Pence. Learning that the writer was Miles Taylor, someone unknown to most Americans, revealed the op-ed for what it was: a cheap anti-Trump gimmick.
So how often does the New York Times use those magic words to confer a sense of knowledge and authority on its otherwise anonymous sources who may hold a position few would consider “senior”? A Nexis search of Times articles shows the phrase “senior administration official” or “senior White House official” was used 1,104 times from January 20, 2017 through October 29, 2020. Often, the Times’s top-level secret source is quoted to expose private information or to undermine or criticize the President. Examples:
■ “President Trump thrust himself into a bitter Persian Gulf dispute on Tuesday, taking credit for Saudi Arabia’s move to isolate its smaller neighbor, Qatar, and rattling his national security staff....His tweets, which a senior White House official said were not a result of any policy deliberation, sowed confusion about America’s strategy....” (June 6, 2017)
■ “His top staff was not nearly as enthusiastic [about tweets criticizing NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem], a senior administration official said. There were complaints from some officials that his tweets created another public relations headache at a time when the White House was scrambling....” (September 25, 2017)
■ “According to a senior administration official, other potential [State Department] hires were knocked out of consideration for sins as minor as retweeting some of Marco Rubio’s ‘little hands’ jokes about Trump. ‘The hiring pool is very different from your normal hiring pool,’ the official says. ‘The people the Senate would expect to confirm have all been taken off the table.’” (New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2017)
■ “‘I have said many times I was not put in this job to change the way the president of the United States does business,’ he [White House chief of staff John Kelly] said in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday....‘Let Trump be Trump,’ one White House official said on Thursday, summarizing Mr. Kelly’s approach to managing the President’s behavior. One senior administration official called it a ‘blind spot.’” (January 19, 2018)
■ “Mr. Trump has repeatedly withheld details of his conversations with Mr. Putin, according to current and former American officials....A former senior administration official said a number of top figures in the administration sought in the hours and days after the meeting to find out details of what Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin had discussed. But Mr. Trump waved off their queries, leaving the officials to rely solely on a brief readout that Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state at the time, had provided to the news media, according to the former official.” (January 13, 2019)
■ “A report by NBC recently revealed that career White House security specialists had rejected [White House advisor and presidential son-in-law Jared] Kushner’s clearance twice, but were overruled by their supervisor. A senior administration official confirmed that account to The New York Times.” (February 9, 2019)
■ “In the months before Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign, she tried to focus the White House on one of her highest priorities as homeland security secretary: preparing for new and different Russian forms of interference in the 2020 election. President Trump’s chief of staff told her not to bring it up in front of the president....According to one senior administration official, Mr. Mulvaney said it ‘wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.’” (April 24, 2019)
■ “President Trump, seeking to justify his claim of a hurricane threat to Alabama, pressed aides to intervene with a federal scientific agency, leading to a highly unusual public rebuke of the forecasters who contradicted him....A senior administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters, said Mr. Trump told his staff to have NOAA ‘clarify’ the forecasters’ position. NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, then issued an unsigned statement saying the Birmingham, Ala., office of the National Weather Service was wrong to refute the President’s warning so categorically.” (September 12, 2019)
■ “Mr. Trump also urged [Ukranian President Volodymyr] Zelensky to look into a theory about the 2016 election that holds that Ukraine hacked the Democratic National Committee and then framed Moscow....[Trump] also brought up a D.N.C. computer server that he suggested might be hidden in Ukraine. While serving Mr. Trump, Mr. Bossert repeatedly told him that his questions about the server were without merit, according to a former senior administration official.” (September 30, 2019)
■ “His [Trump’s] briefers, a former senior administration official said, ‘were stunned and miffed that he had no real interest in the P.D.B. And it wasn’t just the P.D.B.; it was almost anything generated by his N.S.C.’ — Trump’s National Security Council. ‘He kind of likes the military details but just doesn’t read briefing materials. They’d put all this time and effort into these briefing papers, and he’d literally throw it aside.’” (New York Times Magazine, August 8, 2020)
Now that we know that the Times stretched the definition of a “senior administration official” to lend an aura of authority to Miles Taylor’s criticism of the President, how many of these other 1,104 “senior” officials weren’t really that “senior” at all?