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Publishing anonymous column carries risks

Friday, September 7, 2018

Associated Press

NEW YORK

The coup of publishing a column by an anonymous Trump administration official bashing the boss could backfire on The New York Times if the author is unmasked and turns out to be a little-known person, or if the newspaper’s own reporters solve the puzzle.

Within hours of the essay appearing on the paper’s website, the mystery of the writer’s identity began to rival the Watergate-era hunt for “Deep Throat” in Washington, and a parade of Trump team members issued statements Thursday saying, in effect, “it’s not me.”

The Times’ only clue was calling the author a “senior administration official.” James Dao, the newspaper’s op-ed editor, said in the Times’ daily podcast that while an intermediary brought him together with the author, he conducted a background check and spoke to the person to the point that he was “totally confident” in the identity.

How large the pool of “senior administration officials” is in Washington is a matter of interpretation.

It’s a term used loosely around the White House. Press offices often release statements or offer background briefings and ask that the information be attributed to a senior administration official.

The Partnership for Public Services tracks approximately 700 senior positions in government, ones that require Senate confirmation. Paul Light, a New York University professor and expert on the federal bureaucracy, said about 50 people could have legitimately written the column – probably someone in a political position appointed by President Donald Trump.

He suspects the author is in either a Cabinet-level or deputy secretary position who frequently visits the White House or someone who works in the maze of offices in the West Wing. Most of the Cabinet has denied authorship.

Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, meanwhile, puts the number of true senior administration officials at around 100, defining them as high up in the government and having regular interaction with the White House or the president himself.

Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, tweeted that, based on her experience with the Times and sourcing, “this person could easily be someone most of us have never heard of and more junior than you’d expect.”

That would be a problem for the Times, partly through no fault of its own, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.