AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The New York Times has published an op-ed today by a person the newspaper says is a senior official in the Trump administration, an unsigned editorial that is sharply critical of the president and says members of his own staff frequently take steps to protect the country from Trump's own worst inclinations. The piece amplifies the criticism in a forthcoming book by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward. The op-ed drew a sharp response from the president this afternoon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If the failing New York Times has an anonymous editorial - can you believe it? Anonymous...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
TRUMP: ...Meaning gutless - a gutless editorial.
TRUMP: We're doing a great job. The poll numbers are through the roof. Our poll numbers are great, and guess what? Nobody is going to come close to beating me in 2020 because of what we've done.
CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us in the studio to talk more about it. Hey there, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: First, how unusual is it for The New York Times to publish something like this?
HORSLEY: The Times itself calls it a rare step for them to publish an unsigned op-ed. The editors say they know who the author is, but they are withholding that person's name because his or her job would be in jeopardy if it got out. They say they are taking this unusual step now to deliver what they call an important perspective to the newspaper's readers.
CORNISH: So what is that perspective? What kind of case does the writer make?
HORSLEY: Well, he or she paints an unflattering picture, to be sure, of the administration, calling the president amoral with no compass to guide his decision-making. The piece describes a president who regularly veers off topic and off the rails and makes what the writer calls half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that then have to be walked back. Now, the writer takes pains to say this is not the view of a Democrat or some deep state bureaucrat. This is coming from someone who basically shares the president's stated goals and agrees that some of Trump's policies have been good for America's prosperity and security, but at the same time warns Trump himself is constantly frustrating his own staff. And many of those staffers, the writer says, are working to thwart Trump's own misguided impulses until he's out of office.
CORNISH: We heard directly from the president this afternoon, but how is the White House pushing back on this piece in general?
HORSLEY: Well, it's interesting, Audie. They are not dismissing this as fake news. They are not questioning the existence of this senior official. What they are is criticizing this person. You heard the president call him or her gutless. Press secretary Sarah Sanders chimed in adding that he - and Sanders seems to believe it is a he - is a coward. She called on this person to resign. And during that same White House event with law enforcement officers this afternoon, Trump pivoted, as he often does, to talking about his accomplishments.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: Nobody has ever done in less than a two-year period what we've done. So when you tell me about some anonymous source within the administration probably who is failing and probably here for all the wrong reasons, know - and The New York Times is failing. If I weren't here, I believe The New York Times probably wouldn't even exist.
HORSLEY: That's something you often hear from the president, that he is the best thing that ever happened to the news media here. Interestingly, though, Audie, the writer of the op-ed in The New York Times agrees with Trump that there have been positive accomplishments for this administration. The writer approves of the tax cuts that were passed late last year, the deregulatory moves the administration has made, the military buildup, but at the same time says the president himself is acting in a manner that is, quote, "detrimental to the health of our republic."
CORNISH: This is striking a chord, in part, because it echoes what was reported by The Washington Post, the descriptions of Bob Woodward's new book. Is this a consistent picture that we're seeing?
HORSLEY: It is very consistent. When the person behind this op-ed talks about members of the president's own staff working to thwart his worst impulses, you think of those scenes in the Woodward book of staffers taking papers off the president's desk before he has an opportunity to sign them. This is also consistent with what we've heard and seen in daily reporting from the White House. There is a growing body of journalism in which the president's loudest and most damning critics are the people who are or were witnessing this administration up close from the inside.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.