There’s a time-honored tradition in Washington journalism called the “beat sweetener,” whereby reporters curry favor with senior political operators and government officials in hopes of getting future access, inside dirt and good quotes for upcoming stories. These suck-up pieces, which appear regularly in the early days of new presidential administrations, invariably attribute near superhuman powers to their subjects.
The most egregious beat sweetener of the Obama years was written by Anne Kornblut of the Washington Post, who in February 2009 penned a love poem to Jim Messina, then deputy White House chief of staff. In an article headlined “For Obama’s Political Knots, He’s the ‘Fixer’; Low-Profile Aide Jim Messina Has Tackled Tough Problems,” Kornblut wrote that the object of her adoration was a key player in the new regime “because of his extensive ties to political operatives and lawmakers, especially in the Senate, and because of his relentless focus of purpose that mirrors that of his immediate superior, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.” (Two beat sweeteners in one!)
Kornblut’s piece cited a series of friendly sources raving about Messina’s genius and even credited him with single-handedly bringing down the George W. Bush administration. The story was so appalling that even Messina, when I wrote about it for Harper’s, emailed me to say he found it repellent as well. If he was trying to suck up to me he failed, because I nailed him a few years later.
The preeminent beat sweetener of the Trump years thus far is a March 24 Atlantic profile, “The Populist Nationalist on Trump’s National Security Council; Michael Anton actively courts controversy with his extreme views. But how much influence does he have in the White House?”
The story, written by Rosie Gray, formerly “one of BuzzFeed News’ most prominent political reporters” (snicker, snicker), was even worse than Kornblut’s epic suck up, because Messina is an amoral sociopath who will do anything for money but Anton, who runs communications for the NSC, is a mental case who, if these were normal times, would be resting up in a mental asylum. Instead, he’s a senior Trump aide who recently accompanied the president to China.
Much like the recent New York Times story that sought to “normalize” the Nazi Tony Hovater — and decimated here — Gray obscured Anton’s evil views and focused on his fashion sense and culinary preferences. It’s truly obscene and hard to believe. Here are a few choice excerpts:
Anton cuts a curious figure through the Trump White House. A thoroughly educated dandy, his writings are at the core of an effort to construct an intellectual framework around the movement that elected a president who has shown no inclination to read books and who speaks in an unpretentious New York vernacular.
“I’m a huge admirer,” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said. “I think Michael is one of the most significant intellects in this nationalist movement.” [Editor’s note: Bannon and Anton subsequently had a falling out.]
Trim and handsome at 47, married with two children, Anton spent the previous decade in relative obscurity. After a few years as a speechwriter in the Bush administration’s National Security Council, Anton had a series of corporate jobs and wrote on the side. His subjects ranged far and wide, from cooking—in an essay that describes his brief stint working as a line cook in a French restaurant to learn more about the craft—to Tom Wolfe, whom he considers a friend, to the Beach Boys, to Napa Valley.
Almost predictably, Anton wooed the fawning Gray over an expensive meal at the bar of the Hotel Dupont, where her knight in shining armor was “wearing a sharply tailored suit and looking impatient.” Here, and prepare to vomit if you still own your own soul, are a few more choice paragraphs:
A glass broke right next to us. “That’s on the record,” Anton said. He took a call from a reporter. Then had to call another White House official. (Reporters, he said later, “call me all the fucking time. They call and call and call.”)
We were joined for drinks and dinner by Chris Buskirk, a friend of Anton’s…who is based in Arizona and hosts a talk-radio show, was in town for the Conservative Political Action Conference, and was fresh off a party in New York the previous night for the launch party for the American Affairs Journal, a new publication founded by pro-Trump intellectuals Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin…
Over the course of the evening, Anton relaxed. Buskirk and I shared the burrata, while Anton ordered his own appetizer (“I have to get the pig cheeks”) and made a fuss with the waiter about whether we would be able to send back a specific bottle of white wine free of charge if it had oxidized. Machiavelli wrote: “This is the way things are: whenever one tries to escape one danger one runs into another. Prudence consists in being able to assess the nature of a particular threat and in accepting the lesser evil.” Anton, having assessed the risks, decided they were too great. We went with a different bottle.
This would all be simply embarrassing, except for the fact that Anton barely clings to the cliff edge of sanity, a fact that is apparent to all who know him but which Gray helpfully obscures. And mind you, Anton not only sits on the National Security Council, but he was writing pro-Trump essays under a pseudonym during the campaign. In short, he’s not just crazy, he’s powerful.
I’m not going to fully critique Anton’s warped views, as plenty of others have previously. For example, there’s this excellent Bloomberg story or, and it pains me to cite Jonathan Chait, but you could also see this in New York. To take another example, which also pains me, William Kristol, as Gray quickly notes, has compared Anton to the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt.
Gray couldn’t entirely avoid the topic of Anton’s bizarre views, but, between the wine and the burrata, she did her best to sanitize them. Here’s a final excerpt:
Like that movement itself, he’s been repeatedly accused of advancing bigoted views. “Trump Aide Derided Islam, Immigration And Diversity, Embraced An Anti-Semitic Past,” reads the headline of a Huffington Post profile, citing a 2016 essay. “‘Diversity’ is not ‘our strength’; it’s a source of weakness, tension and disunion,” Anton wrote, adding later, “Islam is not a “religion of peace”; it’s a militant faith that exalts conversion by the sword and inspires thousands to acts of terror—and millions more to support and sympathize with terror.” Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, charges that Anton’s best known work is tainted by “a residue of prejudice.”
But maybe the most remarkable thing about Anton is not Anton himself, but how not unusual he is in a White House that is populated by a heterodox set of figures with clashing ideologies, opaque motives, and non-traditional backgrounds.
“I’m a flack,” Anton told me over dinner last month.
“If Trump empowered Anton the way Obama empowered Rhodes he could do really great things,” said national security consultant David Reaboi, a friend of Anton’s and Claremont fellow. “It’s only a question of, ‘Is this guy empowered enough by the administration to actually do this stuff?’ The answer is, not yet.”
It’s all pretty nauseating, though not unexpected from Gray, who, like many of her colleagues in the press corps, has made a career by serving as a mouthpiece for her creepy, usually neoconservative sources. But the worst part is that Gray and Anton both got what they wanted out of their collaboration: Anton was lovingly profiled and made to appear lucid and Gray — multiple sources have told me — won Anton over as a frequent and generous source.
The latest example came in the last 24 hours. Gray had a “scoop” in The Atlantic reporting, “The PayPal cofounder and billionaire investor Peter Thiel recently withdrew his name from consideration to lead the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, according to two sources with direct knowledge of what happened.”
Foreign Policy had a broader and better reported story this morning about the Advisory Board, saying that thus far Trump “has failed to nominate a single member” the board, which “reviews the intelligence community, and which has played a low-profile, but sometimes critical role in previous administrations.” The story, which appears to have been in the works for some time, quoted Anton and noted that the Atlantic had already reported that Thiel had withdrawn his name.
I’m just guessing but I’ll take odds here that Anton was one of Gray’s sources and tipped her off that Foreign Policy was working on a story. Buy maybe I’m just cynical.