WASHINGTON (AP) — One after another, President Donald Trump's top lieutenants stepped forward Thursday to declare, "Not me."
They lined up to deny writing an incendiary New York Times opinion piece that was purportedly submitted by a member of an administration "resistance" movement straining to thwart Trump's most dangerous impulses.
By email, by tweet and on camera, the denials paraded in 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.
Trump was incensed about the column, calling around to confidants to vent about the author, solicit guesses as to his or her identity and fume that a "deep state" within the administration was conspiring against him. He ordered aides to unmask the writer, and issued an extraordinary demand the newspaper reveal the author to the government.
As striking as the essay was the long list of officials who plausibly could have been its 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: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis denied authorship on a visit to India; Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke chimed in from American Samoa. In Washington, the claims of "not me" echoed from Vice President Pence's office, from Energy Secretary Rick Perry, from Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman from Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, and other Cabinet members.
The author professed to be a member of that same inner circle. So could the denials be trusted? There is no surefire way to know, and that only deepened the president's frustrations.
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?