The president, the Times and tough calls


Not long ago, President Donald Trump described his White House as “a finely tuned machine.”

He even said it with a straight face.

The past few days have confirmed what the revolving door that is the Trump administration already has demonstrated: This is by far the most dysfunctional presidency in recent memory, if not in all American history.

John Krull, publisher,

Rather than a finely tuned machine, the Trump White House is more like a pit filled with vipers, snakes constantly hissing, lunging and striking at each other.

The publication of an anonymous op-ed column in The New York Times penned by a senior administration official offers conclusive proof that no one really is in charge at the White House these days. The piece’s author asserts that administrators and other staffers work to curtail and thwart the president’s most irrational impulses on a routine basis — and that the president, wrapped up in his own dark fantasy world, doesn’t even seem to notice.

The president responded to the piece in typical Trump fashion, by lashing out at everyone and everything around him. He called The Times a failing newspaper and he and other members of his administration called the author of the op-ed a coward and a traitor who should resign.

The president and his team even gave serious consideration to adopting a plan proposed by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, to administer lie-detector tests to those working in the White House.

That ought to inspire confidence and trust among the troops.

The president also railed at his supporters during a rally in Montana that it would be their fault if he were to be impeached.

This president sure is no Harry Truman. He can’t take responsibility for anything. If there were a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office, it would read: “The buck stops anywhere but here.”

Among more grounded members of the U.S. citizenry, the publication of the piece in The Times produced a serious and sober discussion about whether the paper should have granted the author anonymity.

It’s a fair question.

Journalistic ethical standards say it is appropriate to withhold the name of a source if the source’s life or safety is threatened or if the person would suffer severe professional consequences should his or her identity be known.

In addition to those considerations, in this situation, the editorial board at The Times also had to wrestle with concerns about national security and arguments about this country’s safety that can and do cut both ways.

In ordinary times, no reputable newspaper would have published an op-ed piece without attaching the author’s name to it.

But these aren’t ordinary times.

We have a White House and a president who make it a point of pride to withhold information — the commander-in-chief’s tax returns, the records of a Supreme Court nominee, the calendars of high officials — that once were considered routine items to disclose. Hearing the folks who want to hide so much complain about a lack of transparency is both ironic and tragic.

That said, this is not a discussion in which the lowest common denominator should prevail.

On balance, if I were running The Times, I would have published the piece, too. I would have tried to persuade the author to disclose her or his identity, but, failing that, I would have decided American citizens had a right to know this information.

This is, after all, their country.

And there already are too many people in positions of power thinking they should get to decide what the people hear and don’t hear.

But it would have been a tough decision, one that I wouldn’t have made without doubts about the wisdom and justice of my course.

Of course, those doubts would have been even greater if I had decided to suppress the piece.

That’s the nature of tough calls.

This president and his White House already have pushed many people to make difficult decisions.

Those days aren’t over.

There likely are many, many tough calls ahead awaiting all of us.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].

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