(CNN)In the wake of President Donald Trump’s clearing of peaceful protesters from outside the White House in pursuit of a photo-op — of him holding a Bible in front of the historic St. John’s church — Axios quoted a “senior White House official” expressing deep dismay with the move.
“I’ve never been more ashamed,” the official told Axios’ Jonathan Swan. “I’m really honestly disgusted. I’m sick to my stomach. And they’re all celebrating it. They’re very very proud of themselves.”
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The quote quickly went viral — bouncing all over the Internet as definitive proof that even those at the highest levels of the Trump administration believed that what happened on Monday night was deeply, deeply problematic. See! Even they know that what he is doing is wrong!Except that the quote proves something entirely different. Read MoreAsk yourself this: If you worked in the White House and felt truly ashamed of what the President had done (and how it had been received by your colleagues) would delivering a quote without your name attached to it be the most effective way of showing that distaste and shame?No, of course it wouldn’t. The best way to show shame — and to break with a White House with whom you are made sick to your stomach — is to put your name to that quote. Because to do so would be a very public way of saying: Enough is enough.That’s not what happened here. Likely because this “senior administration official” knew that if his or her name was attached to that quote, today would be their last day in the White House.Trump, after all, has made it very clear that if you aren’t willing to play ball the way he wants it played — whether you are an inspector general or a Cabinet official — then he has absolutely no problem getting rid of you.So, this is an act of survival. And I have no doubt that the person who gave this quote to Swan viewed doing so as an act of bravery. After all, in theory Trump could work to sniff out who was behind this background quote and fire that person. If job security was all they were after, they could have said nothing at all.Sure-ish. The problem here is that this sort of behavior is what has allowed us to reach a point where Trump feels as though he can and should pull off a speech and a photo-op like the one he had on Monday night.Trump has effectively scared even high-ranking Republican elected officials away from offering any on-the-record criticism of him for fear of political retribution, a la Jeff Flake. Those who remain as senior staff in his administration have done so by refusing to ever offer any criticism of his behavior. It’s the secret of their success.So complete has Trump’s code of silence become that the most high-profile critic of his presidency remains, well, anonymous. And that person — like today’s “senior White House official” is celebrated for speaking out!Having spent more than two decades as a political reporter, I can assure you that just about anyone can be brave behind the cloak of anonymity. I’ve had experiences in which a source would say, without their name attached to the quote, the most brutal thing imaginable about a politician, and then when asked for an on-the-record comment (meaning their name would be attached) would offer up something like: “Senator So-and-So is an honorable public servant doing his best under difficult conditions.”Actual bravery means standing up to power — knowing that negative consequences may well be visited upon you for doing so. But bravery is believing deeply enough in what you are saying that you are willing to risk it.That’s not what happened here. Instead we saw a senior staffer still so cowed by the President that he or she wasn’t willing to stand up and be counted as someone who viewed what happened on Monday night as an abhorrent stain on the presidency. It’s not brave. It’s the opposite.