Taken together, they landed like a thunder clap, portraying Trump as a danger to the country that elected him and feeding the president’s paranoia about whom around him he can trust.
Trump reacted to the column with “volcanic” anger and was “absolutely livid” over what he considered a treasonous act of disloyalty and told confidants he suspects the official works on national security issues or in the Justice Department, according to two people familiar with his private discussions.
Trump questioned on Twitter whether the official was a “phony source,” and wrote that if “the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!”
In a column titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” the person whom the Times identifies only as a “senior official” describes Trump’s leadership style as “impetuous” and accuses him of acting recklessly “in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”
The official writes that Cabinet members witnessed enough instability by their boss that there were “early whispers” of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office but decided instead to avoid a constitutional crisis and work within the administration to contain him.
“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,” the official writes.
The column, which published midafternoon Wednesday, sent tremors through the West Wing and launched a frantic guessing game. Startled aides canceled meetings and huddled behind closed doors to strategize a response. Aides were analyzing language patterns to try to discern the author’s identity or at a minimum the part of the administration where the author works.
“The problem for the president is it could be so many people,” said one administration official, who like many others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “You can’t rule it down to one person. Everyone is trying, but it’s impossible.”
The phrase “The sleeper cells have awoken” circulated on text messages among aides and outside allies.
“It’s like the horror movies when everyone realizes the call is coming from inside the house,” said one former White House official in close contact with former co-workers.
The stark and anonymous warning was a breathtaking event without precedent in modern presidential history.
“For somebody within the belly of the White House to be saying there are a group of us running a resistance, making sure the president of the United States doesn’t do irrational and dangerous things, it is a mind-boggling moment,” historian Douglas Brinkley said.
The column added to the evolving narrative of Trump’s presidency, based on daily news reporting and books like Woodward’s that rely on candid accounts of anonymous administration officials.
“This is what all of us have understood to be the situation from Day One,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters. He added, “That’s why I think all of us encourage the good people around the president to stay.”
Trump was the first to speak for the administration and lashed out at the Times for its decision to publish the column.
“The failing New York Times has an anonymous editorial — can you believe it? — anonymous, meaning gutless, a gutless editorial,” Trump told reporters during an event with sheriffs in the East Room of the White House.
The president went on to brag about his popularity, although nearly all public polls show that more Americans disapprove of his job performance than approve of it. “Our poll numbers are great, and guess what? Nobody’s going to come even close to beating me in 2020,” Trump said, as the sheriffs assembled behind him burst into applause.
The president later tweeted a single word alleging a possible crime: “TREASON?”
In the Times column, the official writes about the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) in heroic terms, describing him as “a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue.”
This invocation angered Trump, who in his private talks with advisers and friends expressed particular dismay because he has long viewed McCain as a personal enemy, according to people familiar with the president’s thinking. The column reignited Trump’s frustration with last week’s remembrances of McCain and the widespread adulation of his life.
The president was already feeling especially vulnerable — and a deep “sense of paranoia,” in the words of one confidant — after his devastating portrayal in Woodward’s book. He was upset that so many in his orbit seemed to have spoken with the veteran Washington Post investigative journalist, and he had begun peppering staffers with questions about who Woodward’s sources were.
Trump already felt that he had a dwindling circle of people whom he could trust, a senior administration official said. According to one Trump friend, he fretted after Wednesday’s op-ed that he could trust only his children.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also denounced the opinion column in a ferociously worded statement that channeled her boss’s rage and echoed some of his favorite attacks on the media.
Her statement began by invoking Trump’s 2016 election victory and noting, “None of them voted for a gutless, anonymous source to the failing New York Times.” Sanders went on to demand that the paper apologize for what she called the “pathetic, reckless, and selfish op-ed,” and urged the anonymous author to leave the White House.
“The individual behind this piece has chosen to deceive, rather than support, the duly elected President of the United States,” she said in her statement. “He is not putting country first, but putting himself and his ego ahead of the will of the American people. This coward should do the right thing and resign.”
There were immediate calls from Trump critics for the author to step forward and share more information with the public, including perhaps testifying before Congress, about Trump’s fitness for office.
Both inside the White House and in Trump’s broader orbit, aides and confidants scrambled to identify the anonymous official, windmilling in all directions; within just hours of publication, they privately offered up roughly a dozen different theories and suggested traitors.
One aide, for example, suggested a staffer seeking glory and secretly hoping to get caught, while another mused that the official was likely a low-level staffer in a peripheral agency. Others wondered aloud just what constituted a “senior official in the Trump administration.”
A spokeswoman for the Times said she was unable to provide any additional clarity on how the newspaper defines a senior administration official.
Times editorial page editor James Bennet declined to provide further information about the writer’s position or identity but said the newspaper received the column before news about Woodward’s book broke Tuesday. He said the newspaper “would not have been able to publish” the column if it had not granted anonymity to its author.
“We thought it was an important perspective to get out,” Bennet said. “Our preference is not to publish anonymously and we seldom do it. The question is, do we think the piece was important enough to make an exception? We feel strongly that it was.”
The outing of the op-ed’s author is virtually inevitable, according to forensic linguists, who work in both academia and private industry, figuring out the authors of anonymous texts in lawsuits, plagiarism cases and historical puzzles.
“We take the questioned document and compare it to known exemplars,” said Robert Leonard, a linguist at Hofstra University who is often retained by defendants and prosecutors in criminal cases involving threats, plagiarism and libel.
But although many people immediately launched into amateur forensic investigations after publication of the Times piece, Leonard cautioned that “a problem with public people is that a lot of their published work is edited, so it’s like mixing fingerprints or DNA. You don’t always know who the real author is.”
Brinkley, the historian, said the most analogous example of disloyalty and advisers disregarding the president’s wishes was in Richard Nixon’s final year as president. He explained that Nixon would “bark crazy orders” to aides that they intentionally disregarded.
“You’d have to go back to Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes,’ to see this syndrome where the president’s reality happens to be so different from his own senior advisers,” Brinkley said.
Paul Farhi and Marc Fisher contributed to this report.