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John Patrick Grace: Op-ed mystery may be similar to old Agatha Christie film

September 19, 2018

Anyone recall the surprise ending to Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (book and movie)? Dapper, sharp-tongued Belgian detective Hercule Poirot has spent most of the story piecing together clues to a homicide that has taken place on the train where he himself is a passenger.

Readers (or viewers) are led to speculate on this character, then that character and rise to the challenge of cracking the mystery of who stabbed a villainous, foul-mouthed fellow passenger to death in his compartment late at night.

But voila! In the work’s denouement, Poirot reveals to the assembled suspects that no one of them is guilty of the crime. Instead, he says, “All of you are.”

A flashback in the film then shows how the entire pack of suspects gathered outside the victim’s compartment, broke in, and began stabbing him to death, each one passing the blade to the next assailant.

The film might find a large viewership this month if it were rerun on television. Why? Because Poirot’s sleuthing in the hands of his creator, the indominable Agatha Christie, points the way to unraveling the political mystery of the moment: Who wrote the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times detailing chaos in the White House of President Donald Trump and efforts to curb the madness and substitute sanity.

Former White House aide Steve Bannon may have been the first to suggest publicly, in a TV interview, that the op-ed was the work of “collective authorship.” Subsequently at least one cable news network had a written documents analyst endorse that view as a reasonable hypothesis.

I had suggested something similar myself in a post on The Washington Post news website.

Lines in the op-ed provide clues enough. The piece speaks of “the resistance inside the Trump administration.” It says “many senior officials ... are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of (Trump’s) agenda and his worst inclinations.”

Speaking of this group, the op-ed says “we believe our first duty is to this country” and then adds later, “We are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”

The op-ed tells the country that “the resistance” in the White House to Trump’s “erratic” behavior is “not the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.”

The anonymous piece also refers to “whispers” among White House staff of invoking the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment provides for the removal of a president from office if at least one half of the cabinet plus the vice president agree the chief executive is incapable of carrying out his duties.

For the president to be permanently sidelined, however, two thirds of the U.S. Senate must ratify the cabinet and vice president’s decision.

Memos circulating among White House staff, it has been alleged, often carried the hashtag #TFA, standing for “twenty-fifth amendment.”

Trump himself has spent numerous tweets bashing the author of the anonymous op-ed and also threatened to have The New York Times “investigated” for its act of publishing it. He has shied away, however, from exploring the possibility that multiple members of his entourage joined in writing the commentary on his administration.

Dozens of top administration officials and aides have signed statements denying that they were an author of the op-ed. In effect, they may have been able to do so truthfully, since further speculation is that the group hired a ghostwriter to pen the piece.

In the final scene of “Murder on the Orient Express,” Hercule Poirot informs the assembled culprits that none of them will be turned over to the authorities for prosecution. The homicide, he seems to suggest, was “justified.”

John Patrick Grace is a Huntington-based book editor and publisher. He also teaches the Life Writing Class.

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