ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE – President Donald Trump called Friday for the Justice Department to investigate the anonymous author of an op-ed depicting a “resistance” inside the government and said he is considering taking legal action against the New York Times for publishing it.
The column, published online Wednesday, was written by someone the Times identified only as a senior official in the Trump administration. It depicts a “two-track presidency” in which some top staffers make up a “resistance” force working to thwart the president’s “misguided impulses” in the name of protecting the nation.
“We’re going to take a look at what he had, what he gave, what he’s talking about, also where he is right now,” Trump told reporters. If the anonymous author has a high-level security clearance, the president added, “and he goes into a high-level meeting concerning China or Russia or North Korea or something, I don’t want him in those meetings.”
Traveling aboard Air Force One to Fargo, North Dakota, from Billings, Montana, Trump told reporters that there is a national security imperative to root out the anonymous author, whom he called “a sick person.” He said Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who he has long criticized publicly in especially harsh terms – should use the investigative powers of the Justice Department to determine who authored the column.
“I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was because I really believe it’s national security,” Trump said. A Justice Department spokeswoman said the agency does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.
Legal experts noted there is no apparent reason to get the Justice Department involved.
“The Justice Department’s job is to investigate crimes,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas. “There’s virtually no context in which this kind of op-ed comes within a mile of federal criminal law. Everyone can agree that if they find out who did it, the author can be fired, but we should be careful about the line between things for which you can be fired and things for which the president can sic the Justice Department on you.”
There is one scenario in which such a letter-writer could face legal jeopardy: if the person is a member of the military. “The Uniform Code of Military Justice does make it a crime to say nasty things about your superior, including the president,” Vladeck said. But any such violation would be investigated by the military, not the Justice Department.
David Laufman, the former chief of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, criticized the Justice Department’s response to the president’s comment.
“It’s not enough in this instance for the Justice Department spokesperson to simply repeat the department’s standard, ‘we do not confirm or deny investigations,’ ” Laufman said. The department “is not the personal goon squad of the president of the United States,” and should declare publicly “what its true mission is and what its guiding principles are.”
Thursday isn’t the first time Trump has demanded the FBI or Justice Department investigate a disclosure that is embarrassing to the White House. In the early days of the administration, the president and some of his aides repeatedly pressed then-FBI Director James Comey and other law enforcement officials to investigate not just leaks of classified information, but also disclosures of unclassified, non-sensitive information as well, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Federal law enforcement officials have responded privately to such requests in the past by explaining an important distinction: disclosing classified information can be a crime worthy of investigation; disclosing non-protected information usually is not a crime, and therefore would not be investigated by federal agents.
“I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was because I really believe it’s national security,” Trump said.
Asked if he trusts his White House staffers, Trump said, “I do, but what I do now is I look around the room. I say, ‘Hey, if I don’t know somebody . . . ‘ ” He added, “We have a really well-run, smooth-running White House. It’s a well-oiled machine. It is running beautifully.”
Trump made his comments in a 25-minute question-and-answer session with reporters traveling with him. The session initially was designated off the record, meaning journalists could not report what he said, but at the end Trump agreed to put his comments on the record.
Trump denied one of the more shocking anecdotes in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear.” Woodward reports that Gary Cohn, then the White House’s chief economic adviser, plucked a letter off Trump’s desk that the president intended to sign that would have terminated the trade agreement between the United States and South Korea. In his book, Woodward publishes a picture of the unsigned letter.
Woodward also reports that Cohn took another memo off Trump’s desk that, had the president signed it, would have initiated the process for the United States to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
But Trump denied Woodward’s reporting, calling it a “phony story.”
“Gary Cohn, if he ever took a memo off my desk, I would have fired him in two seconds,” Trump said. “He would have been fired so fast. He would have been fired within the first second that it took place.”
Trump went on to characterize Woodward’s tome as a “big, fat ugly book with all the misquotes and all the lies.”
Trump defended his intelligence and fitness for office, which critics have questioned this week because of Woodward’s revelations and the anonymous Times column.
“I can’t get up and talk in front of a crowd, many times without notes, for an hour and 25 minutes and get the biggest crowds in the history of politics. . .you don’t get up and do that because you don’t know how to think or talk,” Trump said. “You can only do that if you’re at a very, very high level. I’m highly educated and always did well – always did well – no matter what I did.”
In the session with reporters, Trump also weighed in on a number of other topics, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The president said he would be willing to submit to an interview with Mueller under certain circumstances but considers doing so a waste of time and is afraid of being caught committing perjury.
“I’d do it, but under certain circumstances,” Trump said. “It’s a big waste of time.”
Speaking of the investigation broadly, which he again called “the rigged phony witch hunt,” the president added, “We have to get it over with. It’s really bad for the country. It’s really unfair for our midterms [elections]. Really, really unfair for the midterms.”
For months now, Trump’s personal attorneys have been negotiating the terms of a possible interview with Mueller, who is eager to question the president as a witness on a range of topics. Mueller and his team are investigating possible collusion between the Russians and Trump campaign as well as the president’s possible obstruction of justice.
Trump also told reporters that he was expecting to receive a letter in the coming days from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which would be sent through Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“A letter is being delivered to me, a personal letter from Kim Jong Un to me, that was handed at the border” on Thursday, Trump said. “It’s an elegant way, the way it used to be many years ago before we had all the of new contraptions that we all use. I think it’s going to be a positive letter.”
Trump expressed optimism about the state of negotiations over Kim’s government abandoning its nuclear weapons program, even though Trump called off Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea last month because Kim had not demonstrated sufficient progress toward denuclearizing.
Rucker reported from Washington.