The New York Times Owes the Public an Explanation

Anonymous was just a little gremlin all along.

Miles Taylor
Alex Brandom / AP / The Atlantic

Yesterday afternoon, the “senior administration official” who wrote a prominent anti-Trump New York Times op-ed and book named himself, ripping off his mask to reveal … a face so forgettable, so forgotten, that it was unclear whether the mask had been ripped off at all, or whether he was like the Robert Stack character in Airplane!, dramatically removing his sunglasses to reveal an identical pair of sunglasses underneath. Anonymous is Miles Taylor, a Republican operative who started as chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security in February 2019, five months after publishing his op-ed. He left that position in June 2019 and is now campaigning for Joe Biden. At the time of the op-ed’s publication, Taylor was the DHS deputy chief of staff, and his name did not appear on the DHS leadership page at all. Most people thought the author was more famous, not an unknown appointee but a real grand fromage, perhaps at the level of a Cabinet secretary.

In retrospect, it was foolish to expect a Trump-administration official—let alone a “senior” one—to heed the ancient counsel of integrity: “underpromise; overdeliver.” I’m not sure what The New York Times’ excuse is. The op-ed strongly suggested that its author was one of the 15 officials empowered by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to vote on removing the president due to incapacity. Taylor’s boss, Kirstjen Nielsen, was one of those officials, but Taylor was probably far too junior to channel the thoughts of the other 14 voters or the vice president. Many candidates fell under suspicion of authorship, and many suspects were discarded, because the leak-hunters assumed that The New York Times would not allow an underling to write with what could reasonably be mistaken for the authority of a boss.

When James Dao, then the deputy op-ed editor, was asked who counted as a senior administration official, he said that Washington types know the term, and that it encompasses the “upper echelon[s]” of the administration. That’s true enough: I’ve received background briefings from “senior” officials more obscure than Taylor. Although I have never background-quoted such an official myself, I know how the category of “senior” puffs up like a blowfish to impress readers: By using it, the reporter gets an important-sounding background source; the source gets a quote published that sounds like it comes straight from the Oval Office, and not from a cubicle in an adjacent building. Ordinary readers cannot be expected to know these subtleties—and journalists should be more transparent about who gets “senior” treatment (I would suggest no one below the level of deputies to leaders of departments and major agencies). The op-ed and book hint, misleadingly, at that higher level of authority.

Taylor’s book, A Warning, is (as Mark Twain said of the Book of Mormon) chloroform in print. That is what happens when you write a book while taking care to consign to oblivion all identifying traces of your personality. There were touches of an expensive education—quotes from Cicero and Tocqueville (whom he called “De Tocqueville,” helpfully eliminating certain suspects who consistently, and properly, truncate the De). But having regained consciousness after a thorough read, I found that my list of suspects was zero names long, because little tics like that had ruled out everyone I could call “senior” in good conscience. I am reassured to know that I was not wrong, only misled along with the rest of the public.

The New York Times should never have run the op-ed in that form, and since it no longer has to protect its source’s identity, it should explain its reasoning for the obfuscation in the first place. If the author were very senior, the granting of anonymity might have been defensible: that would have been the only way to convey to readers that (say) the attorney general was a saboteur. Instead, Taylor looks like a relatively minor gremlin, for whom the venerable opinion page should have maintained the normal rule: if you have an opinion, you should attach your name and reputation to it like an adult. “Speak in your own name,” my colleague David Frum wrote at the time the op-ed came out. “Previous generations of Americans have sacrificed fortunes, health, and lives to serve the country. You are asked only to tell the truth aloud and with your name attached.”

As for Taylor, he is expiating his misdeeds for Donald Trump by exerting himself for Joe Biden and lining up anti-Trump interviews in the days before the election. He has been a CNN contributor since September. If I were Biden, I am not sure I would want him on my side. “I am a Republican, and I wanted this President to succeed,” Taylor wrote yesterday. “It’s why I stayed.” Biden can easily find Republicans who were, unlike Taylor, perceptive enough to figure out not to trust Trump without having first worked for him for a year. Moreover, Taylor is a liar. In August, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked him directly whether he is Anonymous, and he said, “I wear a mask for two things, Anderson: Halloweens and pandemics. So no.” Cute, but it’s still a lie—and Taylor’s attempts to explain it away sound like more dishonesty. (In the book, he promised that he would “strenuously deny” authorship if asked.) A journalistic enterprise like CNN should not employ contributors who lie to the camera without a trace of scruple. Many Trump officials, senior and junior, will emerge from the administration seeking ways to launder their reputations. This one should, for now, be sent back to the spin cycle.