An anonymous appeal

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“Trust me”: It’s a tired cliché, a throwaway line, but when you first encounter it in A Warning, the new book by “Anonymous,” who is identified here only as “a senior Trump administration official,” it lands with a startling thud. Any revealing details have been explicitly and deliberately withheld to protect this person’s identity. Who is this “me” that we’re supposed to trust?

It’s a question that the anonymous author — who wrote an Op-Ed for The Times last year about resisting the president’s “more misguided impulses” — might have anticipated, given how much of the book is devoted to the necessity of “character” and to quoting dead presidents by name.

Not to mention this individual’s own conspicuous failures of judgment thus far. You don’t even have to take it from me; you can take it from Anonymous. “Many reasonable people voted for Mr Trump because they love their country, wanted to shake up the establishment, and felt that the alternative was worse,” Anonymous writes. “I know you because I’ve felt the same way.” A mildly chastened Anonymous now seems to recognise, somewhat belatedly, that President Trump’s peddling of birtherism conspiracy theories and his boasts about grabbing women’s genitals might have constituted their own kind of warning — plausible evidence that Mr Trump might not magically transform into the dignified statesman Anonymous so desperately wanted him to be.

Anonymous even admits that the thesis of the Op-Ed in The Times — the essay that led directly to the existence of this book, and was published just over a year ago — was “dead wrong” too.

Attempts by the “adults in the room” to impose some discipline on a frenzied (or nonexistent) decision-making process in the White House were “just a wet Band-Aid that wouldn’t hold together a gaping wound,” Anonymous writes. The members of the “Steady Statehave done everything they can, to no avail. Anonymous is passing the baton to “voters and their elected representatives” — only now the baton is a flaming stick of dynamite.

A Warning, then, is just that: a warning, for those who need it, that electing Mr Trump to a second term would be courting disaster. “The president has failed to rise to the occasion in fulfilling his duties,” Anonymous intones. The book’s publisher and agents apparently referred to the manuscript as the “December Project,” though the publication date was moved up to this month when the House announced an impeachment inquiry.

“I realise that writing this while the president is still in office is an extraordinary step,” Anonymous says. In light of three years’ worth of resignations, tell-all books, reports about emoluments and sworn testimony about quid pro quos, this is a decidedly minimalist definition of “extraordinary.” How can a book that has been denuded of anything too specific do anything more than pale against a formal whistle-blower complaint?

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It’s hard to look like a heroic truth teller by comparison, but Anonymous tries very hard, presenting anonymity as not just convenient but an ultimately selfless act, designed to force everyone to pay more attention to what this book says by deflecting attention away from the person who’s saying it.

A Warning, Anonymous says, is intended for a “broad audience,” though to judge by the parade of bland, methodical arguments (Anonymous loves to qualify criticisms with a lawyerly “in fairness”), the ideal reader would seem to be an undecided voter who has lived in a cave for the past three years, and is irresistibly moved by quotations from Teddy Roosevelt and solemn invocations of Cicero.

Everything in the text of A Warning suggests a dyed-in-the-wool establishment Republican. There’s the typical talk about American exceptionalism and national security. There’s the eternal complaint that President Barack Obama was “out of touch with mainstream America.” There’s a wistful elegy for “our budget-balancing daydreams.” Yes, Anonymous is happy about the conservative judicial appointments, the deregulation, the tax cuts; what rankles is the “unbecoming” behavior, the “unseemly antics.”

A big tell comes early on, when Anonymous reveals what “the last straw” was. It wasn’t Mr Trump’s response to the right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when a white supremacist killed a woman and the president talked about “the violence on many sides.” It wasn’t even the administration’s separation of migrant families at the border. These examples might have left Anonymous appalled, but the truly unforgivable act was when Senator John McCain died last year and Trump tried to hoist the flag on the White House above half-staff: “President Trump, in unprecedented fashion, was determined to use his office to limit the nation’s recognition of John McCain’s legacy.”

Anonymous declares that this “American spirit” was best exemplified by the bravery shown by the passengers on United Flight 93, who rushed the cockpit on 9/11. We’ve seen Flight 93 used as a conservative analogy before — by another anonymous author no less, writing under the pen name Publius Decius Mus, who argued before the 2016 presidential election that “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto” and consequently that voting for Mr Trump offered the only chance for the republic’s survival.

That the same violent tragedy has been deployed to argue one point and then, three years later, to argue its utter opposite is, to put it charitably, bizarre. But then Anonymous, a self-described “student of history,” doesn’t seem to register the discrepancy. Nor does Anonymous square the analogy with an episode mentioned in the opening pages of “A Warning” — of senior officials contemplating a replay of the Nixon administration’s so-called Saturday Night Massacre by resigning en masse. The idea of doing anything so bold was floated within the first two years of the Trump administration, and then abandoned.

Toward the end of the book, an earlier quote from Mr Trump kept coming back to me, unbidden: “These are just words. A bunch of words. It doesn’t mean anything.” A WARNING Anonymous Yale University Press 272 pages; $30
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