What Does “A Warning,” by Anonymous, Really Tell Us?
Different readers of “A Warning,” by “Anonymous, a Senior Trump Administration Official,” will likely grow restless at different points. For some, that moment might be when Anonymous writes that, at some moment, his, her, or their colleagues almost made a dramatic stand against Trump, such as in a mass resignation. (“Every time this was contemplated, it was rejected.”) For others, it may be when Anonymous reports that “no one in the Trump White House is a fan of Hillary Clinton” and that he, she, or they support many of Trump’s policy goals, such as getting rid of “burdensome red tape” and cutting taxes. Or it could be at one of the many, many quotes from Aristotle, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, miscellaneous Founding Fathers and Presidents, Henry Kissinger, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, and, of course, Tocqueville, which, while often instructive or eloquent (who doesn’t like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural?), begin to feel like filler. Or perhaps it’s when Anonymous describes the reactions of the people the author calls Steady Staters, otherwise known as the adults in the room, or, alternatively, members of the deep state, such as when, in February, 2018—the month of the Parkland mass shooting—Trump suggests to his aides that teachers should be given guns. Anonymous writes, “Most sane folks raised an eyebrow. The teachers we remembered tended to be gentler souls like Betty White, not Annie Oakley. We wanted to hand Betty and all of her colleagues a pistol?” Has Anonymous seen a Betty White movie lately? There might be something to learn from the acerbic fearlessness that her performances embody. The problem is not that many teachers are women, or that they are older women—and often tough, brave, creative souls. The problem is that guns are guns.
But the definitive moment of restlessness for most readers will likely come in the opening of the book, when Anonymous attempts to explain his, her, or their choice to be anonymous. This is the second time around: in September, 2018, this same Anonymous published an Op-Ed in the Times, entitled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” In that piece, Anonymous said that these Administration resisters, though they supported many of Trump’s policies, had “vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” That was, perhaps, a problematic rationale for remaining nameless—who elected Anonymous?—but it was, at least, a rationale. The simultaneously alarming and tiresome thing about “A Warning” is that Anonymous freely acknowledges that having Administration officials act as silent babysitters doesn’t work. Anonymous now doubts that the course charted in the Op-Ed is “effective, let alone sustainable.” Earlier, Anonymous would tell friends that the reason to remain working in the Administration was to “keep it together.” That answer now “feels more hollow than it used to.” Anonymous & Company “are not bulwarks against the president and shouldn’t be counted on to keep him in check.”
Instead, as a rationale for continued anonymity, Anonymous points to Alexander Hamilton’s use of a pseudonym for the Federalist Papers; anonymity is preferable, according to Anonymous, because this story is not about him, her, or they, but “about us”—meaning Americans, generally. Without a person to attack ad hominem, Anonymous writes, Trump will be forced to deal with the revelations themselves. But most of “us” haven’t been in meetings with Trump and personally heard how unstable and scornful of democratic norms he can be, which is something that Anonymous claims to have done. Anonymous may have compelling reasons for not going public, and that’s fine. But let’s not make this about Hamilton. In this case, the lack of a name is a loss.
This is a particular pity because there is much in the book that is alarming, if not entirely new. “I am not qualified to diagnose the president’s mental acuity,” Anonymous writes. “All I can tell you is that normal people who spend any time with Donald Trump are uncomfortable by [sic] what they witness. He stumbles, slurs, gets confused, is easily irritated, and has trouble synthesizing information, not occasionally but with regularity. Those who would claim otherwise are lying to themselves or to the country.” Trump also, Anonymous writes, regularly urges that the law be broken or ignored, and discussions of potentially criminal acts are so routinized that “we can tell when Trump is preparing to ask his lawyers to do something unethical or foolish because that’s when he starts scanning the room for note takers”:
“What the fuck are you doing?” he shouted at an aide who was
scribbling in a notebook during a meeting . . . The room went silent.
The aide seemed confused about what was wrong.
“Are you fucking taking notes?” Trump continued, glaring.
“Uhh…sorry,” the aide said, quietly closing the notebook and sitting
up straighter in the chair.
His paranoia is the best evidence of a guilty conscience.
Great story. But what was the meeting about? What potential crime might the notes have shown? Anonymous doesn’t say. That reticence may also be a function of the choice to be anonymous. In the introduction, Anonymous writes that the book has been “carefully written to prevent any inadvertent disclosure,” that the author did not personally witness some of the scenes described, and that he, she, or they “may refer to myself in the third person.” Anonymous also notes that “certain details have been withheld or modified without changing the facts in order to preserve the anonymity of those involved.” It would be helpful to know where Anonymous draws the line between modifying a detail and changing a fact—particularly at a political moment when there is a threat to the idea that such a distinction has value. Many of the quotes and the incidents in “A Warning” have been cited elsewhere, which makes the book useful as a compendium. But it would be hard for someone not immersed in Trumpiana to tell what Anonymous has heard firsthand or maybe just read in the Mueller report (one of the sources mentioned)—what he, she, or they can personally attest to and back up. Could Anonymous, with a name attached, have had a far more powerful effect, in the way that some of the witnesses in the impeachment hearings have had? That question is not really examined.
Perhaps all this writerly maneuvering is necessary to protect anonymity, but anonymity is most valuable when it allows for specificity—when it is provides dates, the names of attendees of a meeting, references to documents that can be obtained and to hitherto unknown crimes. And Anonymous does not deliver much new in that respect. Indeed, the vagueness extends beyond what might touch on Anonymous’s own identity. “I have deliberately limited my descriptions of fellow senior officials, and where possible I have avoided discussing their actions and opinions by name,” Anonymous writes. This is presented as a virtue, and proof that the book is not meant to “settle scores.” But it doesn’t give anyone who might want to follow up on the stories told much new to work with.
At times, it bothers Anonymous that stories of Trump’s behavior have come out. After Trump rants at a meeting about “how fucking stupid” it would be for him to take Saudi Arabia to task for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, given what a break with the Kingdom might do to oil prices, Anonymous writes, “We really hoped that the president wouldn’t go public with that explanation for staying silent. Then he did.” If only he wouldn’t tweet; if only he wouldn’t embarrass the people who work for him.
What do we know about Anonymous, other than that he, she, or they is (or was) one of those people? Unless the details in the book have been truly radically modified, the author seems to work in an area related to national security, and to be a Republican of some stripe. (Anonymous concedes, on reflection, that Trump is anti-immigrant, adding, “I still don’t think he’s a hardline racist, but draw your own conclusions.”) The tone and cultural references would seem to be those of a man of a certain age and settled position in life, the kind of Beltway type who refers to Senator McCain as “John”—and who was shattered when Trump resisted lowering the flag after the senator’s death—and who thinks that the most admirable thing about Barack Obama is that he is a “family man.” (Anonymous is glad that Trump has overturned many of Obama’s policies by executive order.) Anonymous has witnessed Trump calling professional women “sweetie” or “honey” and joking about their weight, and did not like it, but notes that “I’m not trying to say that women who work for Trump are victims who can’t handle themselves. Women have had to deal with creeps long before Donald Trump came into office. They don’t need ‘safe spaces’ set up in the West Wing.”
Yet, at times, the atmospheric hints are laid on so thick that one is almost—almost—tempted to entertain the wild idea that they might be part of an identity-hiding feint, and that Anonymous is really, say, a nonbinary Latinx person in their twenties. Certain sentences drift so far into the realm of unintentional self-parody that they almost make more sense as elaborate put-ons. For example: “To understand how far off the reservation the president has gone, you have to look at the world through his soda straw.” The reservation-straying in question has to do with Trump’s support for tariffs, which Anonymous really, really doesn’t like. Anonymous backs up this view with quotes from Adam Smith, “the father of capitalism.”
Anonymous had hoped not only to protect the country from Trump but also to “protect him from himself,” which presumably means to help him to be the best Trump that he can be—one who would fix a “broken” asylum system without being distracted by changing designs for a wall. Anonymous wants the focus to be on conservative goals, not on Trump, and remembers cringing when people called the President a liar, believing that the charge was “unfair” and made to “score political points.” But, the author admits, “Now I know it’s true.” In many respects, though, Anonymous is not above trying to score partisan political points. One of the final arguments made in the book is that Democrats have an obligation to show “restraint” and not choose a nominee who might make people like Anonymous uncomfortable. Republicans, in contrast, are assured that Trump is not one of them—not really.
Intentionally or not, however, what is most revealing about “A Warning” is the warning it delivers about the Republican Party. Anonymous’s colleagues have not been defeated, exactly; rather, more and more of them have joined the Trump team, which they perceive to be winning. They are no longer his “guardrails” (if they ever were) but his “human shields.” The ascendant faction is one that Anonymous calls the Apologists, who fall into two categories: the Sycophants and the Silent Abettors—one group is louder than the other, but their effect is the same. These people generally act as if they believe in Trump; their “telltale trait” in meetings is “smiling and nodding at the wrong time.” They make him worse, by seconding his delusions or saying things that “buoy his belief that he can take actions that, in reality, he cannot.” Some in the West Wing ask Trump to tweet provocatively, in order “to send raw voltage into the news feeds of his followers in order to light up a new cause.” And Anonymous applies this diagnosis to congressional Republicans, too. Trump has “created a true cult of personality,” becoming the focus of G.O.P. loyalties. The problem is not just that Trump is President. The problem is that this is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.