Melania Trump came to her husband’s defense on Thursday, gamely letting meanies inside the White House and over at The New York Times know it was improper to write and publish an anonymous op-ed describing the commander-in-chief as a self-absorbed and bonkers delinquent who might steer the ship of state into the abyss.
“To the writer of the op-ed - you are not protecting this country, you are sabotaging it with your cowardly actions,” she said in a statement released to CNN.
“People with no names are writing our nation’s history. Words are important, and accusations can lead to severe consequences,” she also noted. “If a person is bold enough to accuse people of negative actions, they have a responsibility to publicly stand by their words and people have the right to be able to defend themselves.”
These are fair-minded and honorable thoughts. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson noted, “anyone who thinks they escape the moral and political taint of this administration by murmuring anonymous misgivings about Trump is a fool as well as a coward.” And writers, as the first lady highlights, should have the courage and character to stand by their words (though anonymity is a valuable necessity for reporters’ sources if used judiciously).
The problem with Melania Trump’s counterpunches is that President Donald Trump is a 72-year-old man who has spent the better part of five decades anonymously and gregariously leaking malicious and damaging rumors and information about friends, enemies, business associates and his own family members to gossip pages and reporters. So let’s take the first lady’s distaste under advisement.
Trump used to whisper in my ear, for example, about how a prominent CEO often broke down crying in conversations with him. He wanted me to publish the information, but attribute it to a confidential source. (I didn’t.) He slagged his two ex-wives, both on-the-record and while requesting anonymity. (I didn’t publish the anonymously sourced information.) He went harshly on the record and on background about the casino mogul, Steve Wynn. (I didn’t write the anonymous stuff.) He also had bad things to say - while requesting anonymity - about a host of politicians, celebrities and competitors in the real estate business.
He learned some of this at his father’s knee. Fred Trump used a fake name - “Mr. Green” - to scout properties to buy and his son invented a troika of aliases - “John Baron,” “John Barron” and “John Miller” - to plant favorable stories about himself in the press.
As reported by my fellow Trump biographer, the late Wayne Barrett, Trump used a false identity back in 1980 to contact and mislead reporters about how he destroyed significant art work meant to be preserved from the facade of a Fifth Avenue department store he was razing. (I was a research assistant on Barrett’s Trump book.)
Trump kept at it. “Pete Hamill didn’t want to run Trump stories at the (New York Daily News) in the 1990s because he said they were too often Trump trying to serve as an anonymous source about himself,” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman recently tweeted. “And, to be clear, often trying to make claims on background about himself with tenuous factual basis.”
Trump maintains this tradition today, as a Washington Post journalist, Josh Dawsey, has observed: “The president was a longtime anonymous source for the New York Post, has called reporters not on-the-record as pres.”
Trump routinely relies on anonymous - and possibly nonexistent - sources while publicly criticizing people on Twitter. And the president and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, concocted a false identity for Trump - David Dennison - to help mask hush money payments Cohen made to porn star Stormy Daniels. (Daniels says she had a sexual encounter with Trump, which the president has denied.)
Leaking anonymously is just one part of Trump’s longstanding playbook for manipulating the media and controlling the narrative. He’s now so incensed that someone else - and someone in his own government - has written anonymously about him that he’s turned to yet another chapter in his media playbook: battling back by launching a mole hunt.
The White House is presently trying to ferret out the unknown Times columnist. Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly has, according to the Times, winnowed the list of possible op-ed writers to about 13 people. The White House has considered forcing members of its team to take polygraph tests or sign sworn affidavits as proof that they didn’t do it. (I won’t call that a “witch hunt,” though.) Trump also tried to find the writer by demanding on Twitter that “the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!”
He continued to press the matter on Thursday night: “Are the investigative “journalists” of the New York Times going to investigate themselves - who is the anonymous letter writer?”
Trump is likely to stay on the prowl. He sued me for libel in 2006 for a biography I wrote, “TrumpNation,” alleging that the book damaged his reputation by reporting that three anonymous sources - all of whom were familiar with his finances - believed he was worth hundreds of millions and not billions of dollars. (He lost the case in 2011.)
Trump’s lawyers deposed me for two days during the litigation and at one point began reading from a list of Trump acquaintances and insiders, asking me if I had interviewed or conversed with each of them. Once I realized that they were after the identity of my anonymous sources, I refused to continue answering that line of questioning. Trump’s lawyers reminded me I was under oath and required to answer them. I still declined to respond, my lawyers intervened, and we never tested that issue again.
Anonymous sourcing - in his critics’ hands - clearly roils the president. White House staffers and government officials can expect Trump’s mole hunt to continue. But that doesn’t make it any more credible for Melania Trump to invoke principles that her spouse has never embraced, and that he has spent decades gleefully trashing.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”