WASHINGTON: The publication of a searing New York Times op-ed by an unnamed Trump administration senior official describing the president as amoral and making “reckless decisions” has thrown the White House into unprecedented turmoil.
The explosive revelation of insider “resistance” paints a White House in which aides are aiming to thwart an unmoored Donald Trump and his “worst inclinations” in order to protect America’s democratic institutions.
But is the damning op-ed the harbinger of a coup or constitutional crisis? Unlikely, say experts.
Here are three key questions about the anonymous essay:
Is there historic precedent?
Senior officials have pushed back against their commander in chief since George Washington’s day. What makes this different is the extent to which the anonymous official says aides are working to frustrate Trump’s agenda and the very public platform through which the message was delivered.
“There are no precedents to this in US history,” James Thurber, a government professor and presidential studies expert at American University, told AFP.
There have been at least some parallels, including an incident in 2013, in which a self-identified official used an anonymous Twitter handle to lambast aides to President Barack Obama.
But that person, later caught in a sting operation and fired, was a mid-level National Security Council expert, far from the “senior official” that the Times says penned the essay.
“The only modern precedent is Deep Throat during Watergate,” offered political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, referring to the famed Nixon administration source of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward who kept his identity secret for 31 years.
Mark Felt, former associate director of the FBI, was ultimately identified by his family as Woodward’s source.
Is a constitutional crisis brewing?
Obama’s former secretary of state John Kerry said the opinion piece was further confirmation that Trump’s presidency has run “off the rails,” telling CNN that “this is a genuine constitutional crisis.”
The essay’s author wrote that there were “whispers” within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows cabinet members as a group to notify Congress should they believe the president can no longer carry out his duties.
Just a day before the anonymous piece, damning excerpts from Woodward’s new book on the Trump presidency had lent traction to the notion that a severe crisis was gripping 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Pulitzer-winning journalist described aides working behind the scenes to contain the president, going as far as snatching a trade agreement cancellation letter off Trump’s desk, and ignoring the president when he urged the Pentagon to kill Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Still, experts have hesitated to go there.
“This is a continuing political and leadership crisis,” Thurber said. “It is not yet a constitutional crisis.”
Sabato agreed. “We don’t even know who the author of the op-ed is, and that is essential to properly evaluate it.”
How will this impact Trump’s presidency?
The essay is unlikely to precipitate Trump’s impeachment, but no one sees it as a good sign. While the essay and Woodward’s book caused a White House meltdown — with Trump asking if the unsigned op-ed could be “treason” and demanding the author’s unmasking — the president’s closest aides circled the wagons.
More than a dozen top administration officials denied being the essay’s author.
“This will have little impact on Trump, but will continue to undermine trust in his presidency here in the US and in the world,” said Thurber, who believes the 25th Amendment will not be used on Trump.
Sabato pointed to the cumbersome nature of that process, which requires a notification to Congress explaining why the cabinet sees the president as unfit to serve, and a two-thirds vote by both chambers, to oust the president and replace him with the vice president.
John Hudak, an expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, called the process “more difficult than impeachment.”