The hunt for the mole began as soon as the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed by a senior Trump administration official declaring that many in the government are working to thwart the president they serve.
One senior administration official described a White House in “total meltdown” by Wednesday evening, after the president went on television to directly attack the author and the Times, an assessment corroborated in interviews with more than a dozen current and former White House officials and outside advisers.
The op-ed, whose author described top aides working to restrain a reckless and amoral president and Cabinet officials considering constitutional measures to remove Trump from office, landed a day after excerpts from Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book quoting senior aides dismissing the president’s capacity for office – and on the heels of Trump’s exile from official Washington during the weekend’s funerals for onetime Republican standard-bearer John McCain.
For some Trump allies, the onslaught capped a 10-day spiral that revealed a president at war with his closest aides – and the extent to which those aides believe their job is to stop Trump from exercising his worst impulses and doing grave damage to the nation.
More than any previous episode, the op-ed seemed to signal a shift from now-routine internal chaos and infighting to a gathering, and sustained, revolt against the commander-in-chief by those closest to him. One former White House official declared it “open season on the president.”
Trump appeared to share that view, tweeting in all-caps on Wednesday: “TREASON?” He then upped the pressure by tweeting that “the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!”
The author was identified by the Times solely as “a senior official in the Trump administration,” setting off a round of finger-pointing within the West Wing that was beginning to spread across the highest levels of the administration. Officials rushed to identify potential writers – an echo of earlier, highly corrosive internal leak investigations. One person familiar with the matter described staffers as “very distraught.”
The op-ed comes amid one of the most brutal periods of Trump’s presidency. Its publication followed last month’s public turn against Trump by Michael Cohen, his former attorney and longtime Trump Organization fixer, who pleaded guilty to federal charges of campaign finance violations relating to payoffs he made in 2016 to silence two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
The president has also endured a public betrayal by his former “Apprentice” sidekick and former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who recently revealed that she’d recorded her colleagues on the Trump campaign and in the West Wing.
Exhausted aides – who have been in constant crisis mode since early August — are reaching their breaking point and some close to Trump worry what the increasingly isolated and paranoid president will do next.
Trump was furious about the anonymous official’s account, according to people close to him, The op-ed prompted the president to launch into an angry rant against the Times, CNN, the rest of the “dishonest media” during a Wednesday White House event with sheriffs from across the country.
“So when you tell me about some anonymous source within the administration, probably who’s failing and probably here for all the wrong reasons, now, and The New York Times is failing,” Trump said in the East Room. “If I weren’t here, I believe The New York Times probably wouldn’t even exist.”
Sanders, in her statement, added, “The individual behind this piece has chosen to deceive, rather than support, the duly elected president of the United States. 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.”
Veterans of previous administrations said the op-ed marks a nearly unprecedented departure from the usual rules of decorum for a current official.
“We had people who left the Bush administration and turned on us immediately. Scott McClellan. He leaves the Bush administration and goes out and writes this book trashing everybody in the White House,” said Eric Edelman, former undersecretary of defense for policy during the George W. Bush administration, referring to the former Bush White House press secretary. “But to have people inside the administration doing this while they’re there, no.”
But some drew parallels to an incident that roiled the Obama administration.
In 2013 Obama administration officials hunted for a self-identified but unnamed official who tweeted internal gossip and biting commentary under the handle of @NatSecWonk, lambasting figures from Obama adviser Ben Rhodes to Hillary Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea. An elaborate analysis of the tweets focused suspicion on a mid-level National Security Council nuclear arms expert named Jofi Joseph, who was caught after he tweeted information planted in a sting operation. Joseph confessed and was fired. He is now a tax consultant.
Current and former White House officials joined in the immediate Washington-wide guessing game, trying to figure out who the anonymous official was and trying to extrapolate from the text of the op-ed whether the person works in the West Wing in close proximity to the president or at a federal agency.
The op-ed appeared to offer some clues. It focused heavily on foreign policy issues, lamented Trump’s departure from conservative principles like free markets and praised McCain, who was long the target of Trump’s disdain. Some people close to the White House speculated that the op-ed author works at the National Security Council, the State Department or the Defense Department – but administration officials said they don’t yet know who wrote the op-ed.
One former official said the timing of the op-ed suggested that people inside the administration were acting before the midterm elections in hopes that Democrats would win back at least one house of Congress to serve as a check on Trump.
But two former administration officials dismissed the idea that the op-ed would have any lasting effect, contending that the author’s anonymity meant it would do little more than set off a national guessing game.
“It’s ridiculous and pompous,” one of the former White House officials said. “As a political appointee, you aren’t there to play God, you’re there to serve the presidency.”
The op-ed, which was headlined “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” argued the root of Trump’s problems as president lie in his “amorality,” adding that “he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”
“[W]e believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic,” the official wrote in the op-ed. “That is why 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.”
In another remarkable claim, the official wrote that members of the president’s Cabinet briefly considered trying to push Trump out of office – but quickly dismissed the idea.
“Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president,” the official said. “But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.”
In a note to readers, The Times said it made the extraordinary decision to publish the op-ed anonymously because it is “the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.” The Times added that the newspaper knows the identity of the official.
Trump has long worried that members of his own administration were working against him – and he has roared both in public and in private about leaks to the press and about the so-called “deep state.” But the anonymous official denied being part of the liberal “resistance” against the president, or the “deep state.”
“This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state,” the official wrote. “It’s the work of the steady state.”
The president, who often asks administration officials who they think is leaking to reporters and has a lengthy history of leaking to the press himself, has long sought to take steps to stem the constant flow of information to the press – but the efforts have had little effect.
The Woodward book underscored the extent to which Trump remains subject to the rules of Washington. The Trump White House declined to follow the example of its predecessors and refused to cooperate with Woodward, leaving officials to act as free agents in dealing with the reporter – though, as in most Woodward books, it’s difficult to tell who talked and who didn’t.
Many current and former administration officials who were spotlighted in Woodward’s book were furious about how they were portrayed, according to two people familiar with the matter, worried that direct quotes from them included in the tell-all made it look like they cooperated heavily with the Post reporter.
One person close to Trump marveled at the lack of loyalty many in the administration have shown to Trump, especially for a president who demands loyalty from everybody in his circle. Trump’s outside allies have been warning him privately for months that he shouldn’t trust the administration officials he deals with on a daily basis. “He’s surrounded by strangers,” one former Trump campaign official said of the current makeup of the White House.
In private conversations, administration officials regularly acknowledge their frustration with the president, especially as he has continues to criticize the government bureaucracy.
Indeed, the anonymous official and others in the administration who don’t see themselves as diehard Trump supporters have long made the case that their loyalty lies with the presidency, not the president.
Yet even people who in the administration who agreed with parts of the op-ed worried it would only encourage the notoriously stubborn president to retrench. “It reflects how many people feel, but it serves no purpose,” said one administration official. “If the goal was to moderate Trump’s behavior, it will do the opposite.”
Nancy Cook, Michael Crowley, Nahal Toosi and Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.