Presidents have faced questions about their ability to serve, but not such extensive and public indictments by sitting members of their own administrations.
After Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in 1919, members of Congress raised concerns about his ability to serve as U.S. president. Nearly seven decades later, the same questions were privately posed by White House staffers about a reportedly aloof Ronald Reagan at the end of his second term.
But until Wednesday, when The New York Times ran a blistering anonymous op-ed by a Trump administration official, no U.S. president had been as publicly and thoroughly indicted by a serving member of his own administration as Donald Trump, says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Dallas’s Southern Methodist University.
The unnamed author of the New York Times piece calls the president amoral, and his leadership style “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.” In order to protect Americans, he or she, along with a group of “unsung heroes,” have been trying to undermine Trump’s actions at every turn, according to the piece.
What the author is saying, says Engel, is: “We are not following the chain of command. Period. Because we don’t trust the president.” That’s essentially a coup, he adds.
That alone makes the commentary unprecedented, but it’s a first in other ways too. The questions that fluttered around Wilson’s and Reagan’s fitness, for example, were related to medical conditions, not their alleged lack of values. “No one ever said that Wilson or Reagan… were lacking in any kind of moral fiber,” said Engel.
And in the past, if administration officials wanted to air out their disagreement with a president, they would step down from their post first. That has happened under Trump too. But even before the op-ed, there’s been no shortage of Trump bashing from within, via leaks. A whole book’s worth of damning insiders’ accounts—Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House—was also released this week. In it, senior aides and officials were quoted calling their boss “an idiot” and having the level of understanding of “a fifth or sixth grader.” (Several later denied doing so.)
That’s why, while extraordinary, the New York Times essay is unlikely to change much for the Trump presidency, says Engel. “People have been saying this kind of thing since the very first days of the administration,” he adds.