Inside the Trump White House and across the administration, it was still a guessing game Thursday in the informal hunt to figure out which senior official wrote an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times.
The president had not commented beyond a tweet Thursday morning after expressing his outrage at the "gutless editorial" Wednesday but was headed to a campaign rally in Montana later in the day.
The Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy - & they don’t know what to do. The Economy is booming like never before, Jobs are at Historic Highs, soon TWO Supreme Court Justices & maybe Declassification to find Additional Corruption. Wow!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2018
The almost 1,000-word opinion piece released Wednesday afternoon described "many senior officials' at high levels of the administration working to “frustrate parts of [President Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.”
Ever since the explosive op-ed was posted, officials inside the West Wing have been speculating about who the author could be – and were on edge, pointing fingers at colleagues.
Text messages circulated among current and former officials, sources said, some reading "The sleeper cells have awoken."
"The snakes are emboldened!” one former White House official said.
So far, the fact-finding mission to figure out who the culprit could be appeared to be unofficial. Implying there could eventually be a digital investigation into who authored the op-ed, one senior administration official said, "I hope they used a typewriter."
Still, officials conceded that the sentiment expressed in the op-ed wasn’t all that different from what has already been said by some at the White House and administration to journalists and lawmakers.
On Thursday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a second, scathing statement in response to the deluge of inquiries about who the author could be and called the New York Times “complicit in this deceitful act.” She even went so far as to share the phone number for the paper.
“The media's wild obsession with the identity of the anonymous coward is recklessly tarnishing the reputation of thousands of great Americans who proudly serve our country and work for President Trump. Stop,” Sanders said. “If you want to know who the gutless loser is, call the opinion desk of the failing NYT.”
First lady Melania Trump joined in, blasting the author. You are “not protecting this country,” she said in a statement. “You are sabotaging it with your cowardly actions.”
As the op-ed appeared in the New York Times print edition Thursday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke out from his trip abroad in India, and then the Vice President’s communications director tweeted a denial.
Cabinet-level officials – who said they were not directed by the White House to release statements refuting the op-ed – came out one by one, some via spokespersons, with criticism of the opinion piece and their own form of denial.
Cabinet members huddled with advisers to come up with their responses -- especially as the president, who had fumed after Bob Woodward’s behind the scenes book about the White House surfaced earlier in the week, said he liked the on-the-record denials of his chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
It was noteworthy, though, that much of the Trump administration’s response focused on the New York Times and the media – and not the substance of the op-ed.
In it, the writer says there are “bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.”
But the writer goes on to criticize the president’s leadership style, and says aides “have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful.”
In an interview with Hugh Hewitt Thursday, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska – a frequent critic of the president – said the views in the op-ed were “not surprising.”
“It’s just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week. So it’s really troubling, and yet in a way, not surprising.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and a close ally of the White House, said that GOP members of Congress are evaluating whether to start an investigation into the op-ed controversy.
"Everybody is entitled to free speech," Meadows said. "Yet at the same time, if you're having highly sensitive and classified meetings in the Oval Office and you have someone trying to resist those efforts, I think all of us would agree that it is highly unusual and perhaps the only time it has happened."