WASHINGTON – One after another, President Donald Trump's top lieutenants stepped forward Thursday to declare, "Not me."
They lined up to deny writing an incendiary New York Times opinion piece that was purportedly submitted by a member of an administration "resistance" movement straining to thwart Trump's most dangerous impulses.
By e-mail, 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.
Trump was incensed about the column, calling around to confidants to vent about the author, solicit guesses as to his or her identity and fume that a "deep state" within the administration was conspiring against him. He ordered aides to unmask the writer and issued an extraordinary demand that the newspaper reveal the author to the government.
As striking as the essay was, the list of officials who plausibly could have been its author is long. 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 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.
On Twitter, Trump charged, "The Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy - & they don't know what to do."
White House officials did not respond to requests 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. Some who agreed with the writer's points suggested the president's reaction actually confirmed the author's concerns.
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.
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."