Trump calls for Justice Department investigation of NYT op-ed writer
New York Times says that would be 'a blatant abuse of government power'
U.S. President Donald Trump declared Friday the Department of Justice should try 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" in an interview with reporters aboard Air Force One as he called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to open an investigation to unmask the author. He also said he was exploring the potential of bringing legal action against the newspaper over the 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."
Responding in a statement, The New York Times said any such investigation would be an abuse of power.
"We're confident that the Department of Justice understands that the First Amendment protects all American citizens and that it would not participate in such a blatant abuse of government power," it said. "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."
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 even be contemplated.
Still Trump's call is the latest test of the independence of the Justice Department, which is supposed to make investigative and charging decisions without political interference from the White House.
Top officials deny writing
A day earlier, Trump's top lieutenants stepped forward to repudiate the op-ed in a show of loyalty to their incensed boss, who has ordered aides to unmask the writer.
By email, by tweet and on camera, the denials paraded in Thursday 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."
However, 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, including from Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Scramble to unmask author
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 people 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.
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."
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."
With files from CBC News