There are few things in Washington more malleable than the definition of “senior official.”
As news organizations and the White House scramble to figure out who wrote the anonymous op-ed written by a “senior official in the Trump administration” for The New York Times, there are hundreds, if not potentially thousands, of people who conceivably qualify for that title.
There are the roughly two dozen (23) Cabinet secretaries, of course – many of whom fell over themselves Thursday to public deny they had authored the column.
And each of them has deputy secretaries, assistance secretaries, chiefs of staff, deputy chiefs of staff – the list expands exponentially. Any of them could arguably be labeled a senior administration official in a news story written by CNN or The New York Times.
Then there are White House senior staffers themselves. Twenty-three White House staffers, for instance, make the maximum federal salary. Could it be one of the nation’s ambassadors or US attorneys, all of whom are appointed by the President? What about the people at the Pentagon? Whole sections of the E-Ring could be “senior” officials. All of them work, to varying degrees of remove, for the President.
The official who wrote the op-ed seemed to have knowledge of Cabinet meetings, but did not directly quote the President as if they had directly interacted with him.
To estimate one potential scope for what the universe might be, CNN examined records of presidential appointee roles throughout the federal government and found roughly 2,000 positions scattered across dozens of agencies.
Why appointees? Because Mr. or Ms. Anonymous appears to reference being an appointee in the Times column.
“That is why many Trump appointees have 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,” the author wrote.
Of course, even that isn’t completely definitive: The author could also be a so-called “acting” official in an appointed role, if Trump hasn’t named a replacement yet himself. It’s impossible to know – though that person would seemingly still qualify as a senior administration official.
CNN examined about 2,000 non-vacant presidential appointee roles (including those currently filled by acting officials).
They include more than 100 people each at large agencies like the departments of State, Justice, Defense and Education.
Is it likely The New York Times would consider an appointee at the Department of Education senior enough to write about Russia policy and obstructing the President’s agenda? Perhaps not, but Opinion Page Editor Jim Dao was asked by CNN’s Brian Stelter how the paper was defining “senior” and Dao wouldn’t say.
But there are also numerous appointees at everything ranging from the Treasury Department all the way to more obscure organizations like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Overseas Private Investment Corp. Or how about the Postal Service? Or the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.? They have appointees, too.
There is also a class of thousands of senior federal employees known as the “Senior Executive Service.” More than 7,000 of them. These senior managers could legitimately claim the mantle of “senior administration official,” one presumes.
However, only a small portion of them are appointed by the president – most are career employees.
Given the author’s own description of being an appointee, who are the Senior Executive Service officials who are Trump appointees?
According to data maintained by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, there are about 570 such “non-career” senior executives – those placed there by the current administration. They are spread across 17 federal agencies.
The largest contingent resides within the Department of Health and Human Services, followed by the Justice and Defense departments.
Whether any of these people are The One – nobody really knows. It’s pure speculation that’s consuming Washington at the moment. But could it conceivably be any one of these people? It’s a possibility. And it shows just how tricky the mole hunt might be for a White House looking to out the author.