President Donald Trump on Friday urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to help find the author of the anonymous New York Times op-ed that depicted a “resistance” inside his administration, with staffers trying to thwart an impulsive president.
“I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was because I really believe it’s national security,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to North Dakota, according to a pool report.
The president has fumed publicly about the column since it was published on Wednesday, calling the writer “gutless” and declaring the anonymous essay amounted to “treason.”
White House officials are actively trying to determine the identity of the “senior administration official” who wrote the piece, who Trump said he believes is probably not someone “very high up.” A number of top Cabinet officials, Vice President Mike Pence and other high-level appointees have all denied being the author.
“It doesn’t seem to be anybody very high up because everybody very high up has already said, ‘It wasn’t me,’” Trump said on Friday. “It would be very hard if it was, if they got caught.”
Seizing on his characterization of the op-ed as a national security issue, Trump added: “We’re going to take a look at what he had, what he gave, what he’s talking about, also where he is right now.”
Such an investigation could include whether the author has a high-level security clearance, and Trump said he would look into barring this person from sensitive meetings.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said the department does not comment on investigations.
Trump also said he would consider taking action against The New York Times. “I’m looking at that right now. It only happened yesterday,” he said.
Former President Barack Obama weighed in on the situation Friday, saying in a speech that the notion that staffers are stealing papers from Trump’s desk and trying to secretly undermine the president is “not normal.”
“These people aren’t elected. They’re not accountable,” said Obama, during a speech at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign billed as the kickoff of his midterm campaigning. “They’re not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff that’s coming out of this White House, and then saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re preventing the other 10 percent.’ That’s not how things are supposed to work.”
Coming on the heels of veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s soon-to-be-published book on the chaos in the administration, the op-ed has unleashed a new wave of paranoia and anxiety in the West Wing, which was still dealing with the aftermath of former aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s release of secret tapes she made during the 2016 campaign and as a White House staffer.
Trump has repeatedly encouraged Sessions to probe specific topics or political rivals. Last weekend, Trump questioned why the DOJ filed charges against two sitting GOP lawmakers and early Trump endorsers, Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York, so late in the election cycle that the party could not replace them on the ballot before November.
Addressing one of the anecdotes from Woodward’s book on Friday, Trump cast doubt on the idea that former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn stole a draft letter off his desk that would have signaled America’s intent to withdraw from a trade deal with South Korea.
“He never took a memo off my desk. Gary Cohn, if he ever took a memo off my desk, I would have fired him in two seconds,” Trump said. “He would have been fired so fast.”
Trump also slammed the Times for publishing the op-ed, calling their decision a “disgrace” and repeating his past claims that America’s libel laws are too weak.
“Our libel laws should be toughened up so that if somebody writes things that are fraudulent and false, they get sued and they lose,” Trump said.
The Times said in a statement that the paper is confident the Justice Department “understands the First Amendment protects all Americans.”
“The president’s threats both underscore why we must safeguard the identity of the writer of this Op-Ed and serve as a reminder of the importance of a free and independent press to American democracy,” the statement said.