West Wing resistance riddle

Whodunit?

That mystery colloquialism is on the minds of all who want to know the identity of the nameless Trump administration dissonant who wrote a sour commentary in the New York Times about the president’s leadership.

President Trump says the need to know the name of the incognito columnist – described by the paper as a senior official – is a national security matter because the author could be someone with high-level clearance, participating in sensitive discussions and having access to confidential documents.

He describes the author as a traitor who may have committed treason if his commentary claim is accurate: that he and like-minded administration insiders are committed to subverting those parts of the president’s agenda they see as dangerous.

Treason is a reach too far.

Yet no one can blame the president for wanting to out the anonymous author and any other resisters within his administration. But his considered means for doing so are more common to a police state than a self-governing democracy.

Those means include an investigation by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to unmask the author’s identity; possibly administering lie detector tests to senior officials with access to the White House, and requiring them to sign sworn affidavits they did not pen the harshly critical commentary.

Additionally, Trump says he is considering legal action against the Times for publishing the unsigned commentary, and by extension, knowing the name and credentials of the author. This approach would force a mighty showdown with the Times over a newspaper’s right to publish and to protect a confidential source. The First Amendment’s free press and free speech protections loom large in the Times’ favor.

Linguists are also at work in search of clues, comparing language of the anonymous author to words and the writing style of administration officials. The Times quoted an unnamed outside advisor to Trump as saying the White House has about a dozen suspects so far.

Vice President Mike Pence, each of Trump’s cabinet members and others in senior positions have asserted their hands are clean. Even First Lady Melania Trump weighed in, characterizing the nameless commentary as “cowardly actions.”

The intensity of the effort to identify the author is not unlike that of the Nixon administration more than 40 years ago to pin down the Washington Post’s anonymous Watergate informant known as “Deep Throat.”

FBI Associate Director Mark Felt was considered a suspect but he staunchly denied he was the source of feeding helpful information to Post reporter Bob Woodward, who produced stories that helped lead to Nixon’s resignation. The speculation over “Deep Throat’s” identity lingered for more than three decades, ending only when an elderly Felt acknowledged he was Woodward’s informant.

There’s a difference between being a credible unidentified source for news stories involving the president and publishing an anonymous commentary. The latter is extremely rare even if the effect on public opinion is similar.

The Times defended its decision to grant anonymity to the writer of the Trump commentary on the ground the opinions expressed were important enough to the public interest. “This was a very strongly, clearly written piece by someone who was staking out what we felt was a very principled position that deserved an airing,” explained James Dao, the paper’s Op-Ed editor.

It strayed from the norm of signed commentary, for sure. And not everyone in the journalism community agreed with the Times decision, mainly because of the accusatory nature of the anonymous author’s opinions and the revelation of a subversive force within the White House.

Personally, I would have been reluctant to publish it anonymously without confirming the accusations with other trusted insider sources, even though the narrative fit what had been written earlier or known about the West Wing chaos.

My choice would have been to investigate the details of the commentary as a news story, to dig deeper into the accusations, especially the statement about like-colleagues establishing a steady resistance to Trump’s unconventional leadership style.

As for whodunit? We may never know.

Bill Ketter is the senior vice president for news of CNHI. Contact him at wketter@cnhi.com.