Donald Trump’s top lieutenants have stepped forward to declare that they were not behind a newspaper article written by a senior US government official who claimed to be part of a “resistance” working to restrain the president’s most dangerous impulses.
By email, by tweet and on camera, the denials over the anonymous New York Times column came from cabinet-level officials, all the way up to the office of vice president Mike Pence.
Senior staff in key US 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.
Mr Trump was incensed over the column, and called 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 that the newspaper should reveal the author’s identity to the government.
In an interview with Fox News, Mr Trump said it was unfair for the person to pen the editorial anonymously because there is no way to discredit it.
He suggested it “may not be a Republican, it may not be a conservative, it may be a deep state person who has been there for a long time”.
As striking as the essay was, there is a long list of officials who could plausibly have been its author. Many have privately shared some of the article’s same concerns about Mr Trump with colleagues, friends and reporters.
With such a wide circle of potential suspicion, Mr Trump’s top aides felt they had no choice but to speak out.
The denials and condemnations came from secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defence secretary Jim Mattis and interior secretary Ryan Zinke.
In Washington, the claims of “not me” were echoed from Mr Pence’s office, from energy secretary Rick Perry, from Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, from Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, as well as a host of other US cabinet members.
On Twitter, Mr Trump said: “The Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy – & they don’t know what to do.”
Some White House officials who agreed with the writer’s points suggested the president’s reaction actually confirmed the author’s concerns.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, suggested that it “would be appropriate” for Mr Trump to ask for a formal investigation into the identity of the article’s author.
He said: “Let’s assume it’s a person with a security clearance.
“If they feel writing this is appropriate, maybe they feel it would be appropriate to disclose national security secrets, too. That person should be found out and stopped.”
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 Donald Trump truly in charge, and could a divided executive branch pose a danger to America?
Former CIA director John Brennan, a fierce Trump critic, called the article “active insubordination … born out of loyalty to the country”.
He told NBC: “This is not sustainable to have an executive branch where individuals are not following the orders of the chief executive.
“I don’t know how Donald Trump is going to react to this. A wounded lion is a very dangerous animal, and I think Donald Trump is wounded.”
The anonymous author, claiming to be part of the resistance “working diligently from within” the administration, said: “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.
“It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room.
“We fully recognise what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”
First lady Melania Trump issued a statement backing her husband. She praised the free press as “important to our democracy” but assailed the writer, saying: “You are not protecting this country, you are sabotaging it with your cowardly actions.”