President Donald Trump declared Friday the U.S. Justice Department should work to identify the writer of a bitingly critical New York Times opinion piece, purportedly submitted by a member of an administration "resistance" movement straining to thwart his most dangerous impulses.
Trump cited "national security" as the reason for such a probe, and he called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to open the investigation in comments to reporters. He also said he was exploring bringing legal action against the newspaper over publication of the essay two days earlier.
"Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was because I really believe it's national security," Trump said. If the person has a high-level security clearance, he said, "I don't want him in those meetings."
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It's all but unthinkable that the Justice Department could open an investigation into the op-ed article. Though it was strongly critical of Trump, no classified information appears to have been revealed by the author or leaked to the newspaper, which would be one crucial bar to clear before a leak investigation could be contemplated.
Still Trump's call is the latest test of the independence of his Justice Department, which is supposed to make investigative and charging decisions without political interference from the White House.
A day earlier, Trump's top lieutenants stepped forward to repudiate the op-ed in a show of support for their incensed boss, who has ordered aides to unmask the writer.
By email, by tweet and on camera, the denials paraded in from Cabinet-level officials — and even Vice President Mike Pence — apparently crafted for an audience of one, seated in the Oval Office. Senior officials in key national security and economic policy roles charged the article's writer with cowardice, disloyalty and acting against America's interests in harsh terms that mimicked the president's own words.
In an interview Thursday with Fox News, Trump said the author "may not be a Republican, it may not be a conservative, it may be a deep state person who has been there for a long time."
There is a long list of officials who plausibly could have been the author. Many have privately shared some of the article's same concerns about Trump with colleagues, friends and reporters.
With such a wide circle of potential suspicion, Trump's men and women felt they had no choice but to speak out. The denials and condemnations came in from far and wide: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis denied authorship on a visit to India; Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke chimed in from American Samoa. In Washington, the claims of "not me" echoed from Vice President Pence's office, from Energy Secretary Rick Perry, from Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman from Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, and other Cabinet members.
The author professed to be a member of that same inner circle. So could the denials be trusted? There was no surefire way to know, and that only deepened the president's frustrations.
When asked to elaborate on Trump's call for the writer to be turned over to the government or on the unsupported national security grounds of his demand, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was simply "opining."
"Look, he’s concerned that someone is trying to undermine the executive branch and he wants it looked at," she told reporters.
When asked what law was broken by the op-ed author, Sanders didn't identify one and said she's not a lawyer.
"The department does not confirm or deny investigations," said Sarah Isgur Flores, a DOJ spokeswoman.
Some people who agreed with the writer's points suggested the president's reaction actually confirmed the author's concerns, and Democrats were quick to condemn the president's call for a federal investigation.
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said, "President Trump continues to show a troubling trend in which he views the Department of Justice as the private legal department of the Trump organization rather than an entity that is focused on respecting the Constitution and enforcing our laws."
But Rudy Giuliani, the president's attorney, suggested that it "would be appropriate" for Trump to ask for a formal investigation into the identity of the op-ed author.
"Let's assume it's a person with a security clearance. If they feel writing this is appropriate, maybe they feel it would be appropriate to disclose national security secrets, too. That person should be found out and stopped," Giuliani said.
And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a key ally of Trump's, called for the president to order those suspected of being the author to undergo lie-detector tests.
"People are suggesting it," Trump said Friday, steering clear of explicitly endorsing the proposal. "Eventually the name of this sick person will come out."
As the initial scramble to unmask the writer proved fruitless, attention turned to the questions the article raised, which have been whispered in Washington for more than a year: Is Trump truly in charge, and could a divided executive branch pose a danger to the country?
Former CIA Director John Brennan, a fierce Trump critic, told NBC, "This is not sustainable to have an executive branch where individuals are not following the orders of the chief executive. ... A wounded lion is a very dangerous animal, and I think Donald Trump is wounded."
The anonymous author, claiming to be part of the resistance "working diligently from within" the administration, said, "Many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office."
"It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room," the author continued. "We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what's right even when Donald Trump won't."
First lady Melania Trump issued a statement backing her husband. She praised the free press as "important to our democracy" but assailed the writer, saying, "You are not protecting this country, you are sabotaging it with your cowardly actions."
Down Pennsylvania Avenue, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he did not know of any role Congress would have to investigate, though Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a Trump ally, said the legislative body could take part.
The writer said Trump aides are aware of the president's faults and "many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them."