Yet if the endless parade of denials was aimed at tamping down talk of an uprising, it may have had the opposite effect, propelling the story to new heights and seemingly delighting Democrats who reveled in the paranoia pulsing through the ranks of Trump’s backers in Washington and beyond.
“It probably won’t take long for us to find out who wrote it,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said almost gleefully as she responded to a question about the bombshell New York Times op-ed at her weekly news conference.
“The vice president — that was my first thought. Then Coats, Pompeo, they denied that they had written it,” she said, referring to Trump’s director of national intelligence and secretary of state. “I guess by process of elimination, it’ll come down to the butler.”
The op-ed, published online Wednesday afternoon, was written by a senior official in the Trump administration, according to the Times. It depicts a “two-track presidency” in which Trump acts according to his own whims while many of his top aides, in the author’s words, work to thwart his “more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”
In addition to painting a dire picture of Trump’s decision-making process, the op-ed also states that some top administration officials discussed early in Trump’s presidency whether to seek to remove him from office via the 25th Amendment.
Trump himself erupted in anger at news of the piece Wednesday night, first denouncing it as “anonymous — meaning gutless,” then floating an accusation of treason and finally calling for the Times to turn over the author “for National Security purposes.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a similarly scathing denunciation and called on the newspaper to issue an apology.
That could have been the end of the story, as far as the Trump administration’s response goes — a flat dismissal followed by a pivot to more-important business. But instead, in the face of allegations that he had lost control of his administration, the president seemed to lose control of the narrative itself.
Amid frenzied speculation about who was hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, Vice President Pence was the first to assert that he had not penned the piece.
“The Vice President puts his name on his Op-Eds,” Pence spokesman Jarrod Agen wrote in a morning tweet. “The @nytimes should be ashamed and so should the person who wrote the false, illogical, and gutless op-ed. Our office is above such amateur acts.”
Speculation about Pence had been rampant on social media and cable television because of the op-ed writer’s use of “lodestar,” an archaic word that the vice president has used in speeches.
Pence’s denial opened the floodgates for other administration officials to follow suit. They included Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who issued his denial while traveling in India.
Some pundits had suggested that Coats was a possible author in part because, at age 75, he is likely in his final government job. But Coats pushed back in a statement declaring that any speculation that the op-ed was written by him or his principal deputy, Susan M. Gordon, was “patently false” and maintaining that his focus has always been on providing the president with “the best possible intelligence.”
By midday, Sanders had taken to Twitter to speak out once again, chiding the media for what she called a “wild obsession” — even as some administration officials rushed to denounce the piece unprompted — and urging citizens to call the Times opinion desk if they wanted to learn the identity of a “gutless loser.”
Yet the denials continued to roll in — some expected, others less so.
They included Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, who denied writing the piece in a statement tweeted by an embassy spokeswoman.
First lady Melania Trump weighed in on the controversy as well, saying in a statement that if “a person is bold enough to accuse people of negative actions, they have a responsibility to publicly stand by their words.”
More than two dozen senior officials had disavowed the op-ed as of Thursday evening. Some offered taut one-word denials through a spokesman. Others echoed Trump. And still others, such as Energy Secretary Rick Perry, seized on the occasion to declare their fealty to the president in the type of over-the-top, flattering language that has become synonymous with Trump’s Cabinet meetings.
“I am not the author of the New York Times OpEd, nor do I agree with its characterizations,” Perry tweeted. “Hiding behind anonymity and smearing the President of the United States does not make you an ‘unsung hero’, it makes you a coward, unworthy of serving this Nation.”
As the denials continued to mount, a clipping from a 1974 Wall Street Journal story on the guessing game surrounding the secret Watergate source Deep Throat began making the rounds on social media. In it, the author writes that former FBI official Mark Felt, who decades later came forward as Deep Throat, “says he isn’t now, nor has he ever been, Deep Throat.”
“Of course, says the former acting associate director of the FBI, if he really were Deep Throat, you’d hardly expect him to admit it, now would you?” the tongue-in-cheek piece asks.
Congressional Republicans had plenty to say Thursday about the brouhaha, including thoughts on whether they should investigate the identity of the anonymous author.
“I like to pride myself on having a vivid imagination, but I can’t possibly construct a fact pattern under which a congressional committee would look at the source of an op-ed,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters he viewed the author as “a person who is obviously living in dishonesty.”
“It doesn’t help the president, so if you’re not interested in helping the president, you shouldn’t work for the president as far as I’m concerned,” Ryan said.
Ryan also downplayed the allegations contained in the op-ed and in a forthcoming book by Bob Woodward, which offers a harrowing portrait of the Trump presidency.
“What I concern myself about is the results of government, and the results of government are good results,” he said. “I know the president is very unconventional. I know his tweeting and unconventional tactics bother people. But the results of government are good results.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a frequent critic of the president who is retiring at the end of his current term, dismissed the furious speculation over the letter, which he said revealed nothing that wasn’t already known about Trump’s leadership style.
“I don’t know why there’s a big uproar. I think people inside the White House have understood the situation from Day One. It just hasn’t been news to me,” Corker said.
Other lawmakers, meanwhile, suggested that the publication of the letter served only to heighten Trump’s paranoia.
“It emboldens his view that the world’s out to get him,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.
As he fielded questions from reporters about the letter, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) mused aloud about the author’s identity.
“I don’t know what job title they’re currently fulfilling,” he said, before Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) answered the question for him.
“I think the job is called ‘spy,’” Gohmert said.
Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian and Gabriel Pogrund contributed to this report.