The hottest name in political publishing is Anonymous. A year or so after publishing an op-ed under that byline in the New York Times about working in the Trump administration, Anonymous has published a book.
The author is identified on the cover as “a senior trump administration official.” The descriptor is a small syntactical switch from the designation the Times op-ed department used in a note appended to the top of the editorial. By using that term, the paper placed the author among a long list of anonymized senior administration officials. Over the years, those officials—along with their cousins, “senior White House official” and “administration official”—have been responsible for countless column inches.
What makes a “senior administration official”? After the publication of the Anonymous editorial, Times op-ed editor James Dao wrote that the term is “used in Washington by both journalists and government officials to describe positions in the upper echelon of an administration, such as the one held by this writer.” This was not especially clarifying.
Meanwhile, the Times newsroom—a separate entity—had raised the question in a reported article that quoted several ex-politicos and SAOs. The responses ranged from “everyone in the administration” to “everyone who carries the title of assistant to the president and all cabinet officials.” (The Office of the President’s 2019 annual report to Congress on White House personnel in particular lists 23 people as an “assistant to the president”; that total surges to 131 if you append “deputy” or “special,” which denote lower status, to the title.) In sum, the Times headline answered, “It Depends.”
Depends on what, though? Reporters, it seemed to me. In the end, it is the professional typers and talkers (and their editors and producers) who actually put the term on the page or the air. They decide who is too unimportant to merit the designation.
So I emailed forty-eight political reporters, editors, producers, and correspondents at major news outlets—several of whom have “senior” in their actual titles—who had personal or institutional histories of using the term. I asked about their own definitions of the term and whether there were any prescribed by their outlets that they followed, as well as for the lowest title they’ve described as a “senior administration official.” Of the forty-eight, three kindly offered on-the-record answers.
Major Garrett, chief White House correspondent for CBS News, replied to say that he did not have a single hard-and-fast rule, but a collection of situational ones. “My own general theory is a Senior Administration Official (SAO) is someone regularly in the room where key decisions are made—whether it be the White House, State Department, Pentagon or some other agency,” he wrote. This could include a press secretary or a deputy press secretary. “Why?” he asked before I could. “Because he or she is in the room and confers regularly with the decision maker. For me, it’s about rings of power. If you are in the room or speak directly to the person who just was, you qualify as an SAO.”
This position, based on proximity, was mostly shared by Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent for New York. “My definition of ‘senior administration official’ is—at minimum—an official who speaks directly with the president, or directly with executive department leaders, about administration policy,” she wrote.
Having to explain with so many words who you are seems to signal that you are not somebody significant.
Sources don’t always think so precisely, though. “Pretty much every official who ever talks with a reporter describes themselves as a ‘senior’ administration official,” New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker emailed. But he feels that doesn’t mean reporters should always listen. “We shouldn’t let every official out there describe him or herself as ‘senior,’ even though they all think they are,” he wrote.
“If I had one rule,” wrote Garrett, “it would be not to ‘Senior Administration Official’ up anyone.” (By this he means “turning a low-level staffer into a Senior Administration Official.”) Garrett said he has SAO-ed quite senior people down, in order to obscure their identity.
How else can one know who is too low-level? Garrett has another general but not absolute guideline: “if your title has at least three adjectives, you’re not an SAO.” A “special assistant to the XXXX” would qualify; a “special deputy assistant to the XXXX” would not. Having to explain with so many words who you are seems to signal that you are not somebody significant.
Still, reporters themselves using more—or different—words could be helpful. “More preferable [than SAO or ‘administration official’] would be more precise information—‘White House official’ or ‘Commerce Department official’ or ‘national security official who was in the room at the time’ or any more details that would help establish credibility for the reader,” Baker explains. “But of course many officials are wary of details that might identify them so we should negotiate for the most we can get.”
Officials aren’t the only ones who skew cautious. “I’m sure I’m not alone in sometimes raising an eyebrow at just how many chatty ‘senior administration officials’ there seem to be,” Nuzzi notes. “But I can also say from experience that, sometimes, there really are that many people who can accurately be characterized that way who really are that chatty all at once.”