President Donald Trump said Friday he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate and uncover the identity of the senior administration official who penned an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times this week.
"Yeah, I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of this piece was because I really believe it's national security," Trump told reporters Friday aboard Air Force One.
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Trump has railed in recent days about the publication of the anonymous op-ed, calling its author "gutless" and a "coward" while suggesting the op-ed could damage national security. Now, it appears Trump is taking this a step further and calling for a criminal investigation, though there is no indication the author violated any laws.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores declined to comment on the mater, saying "we do not confirm or deny investigations."
Neither Trump nor the White House has identified a specific crime that has been committed.
The New York Times responded: "We're confident that the Department of Justice understands that the First Amendment protects all American citizens and that it would not participate in such a blatant abuse of government power. The President's threats both underscore why we must safeguard the identity of the writer of this op-ed and serve as a reminder of the importance of a free and independent press to American democracy."
The Justice Department typically only investigates leaks that involve classified information, which does not appear to be the case with The New York Times op-ed.
Asked whether any legal action would be taken against The New York Times, Trump demurred: "Well, we're going to see."
Trump has been enraged by the publication of the op-ed, directing White House aides to work to uncover the identity of the unnamed senior administration official who painted a withering portrait of a president whose reckless decisions must be contained by aides around him.
Trump has fumed about the anonymous op-ed privately and publicly, including during a rally in Montana on Thursday night, when he again raised the notion that the op-ed presents a national security threat.
Trump on Friday argued the column presents a national security concern because this person still is in the government and shouldn't be attending high-level meetings.
"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 said. "Suppose I have a high level national security and he has got a clearance -- we talk about clearances a lot recently -- and he goes into a high-level meeting concerning China or Russia or North Korea or something and this guy goes in. I don't want him in those meetings."
Trump insisted he was not merely upset about the opinion piece because of the unsparing criticism directed at him, but said the anonymity prevents him from fighting back.
"I don't mind criticism, I handle it and I fight back," he said, calling The New York Times' publication of the piece "disgraceful." "But here's criticism where you can't fight back. 'Cause you have somebody doing it anonymously."
Trump and Sessions
Trump's call for Sessions to launch an investigation into the publication of the anonymous op-ed comes as his relationship with his attorney general remains in turmoil.
But sources familiar with Sessions' thinking say he has come to terms with the fact that his relationship with Trump won't end well one way or the other.
When Trump first started attacking Sessions last year, Sessions told allies he was going to keep his head down and continue leading the Justice Department. As the broadsides continued, he doubled down, expressing to his inner circle that Trump would have to fire him because he had no intention of quitting.
But now, Sessions has readily conceded that the circumstances between himself and the President have worsened in recent weeks, two people familiar with his thinking told CNN -- though Sessions has not signaled to confidants he's considering resigning.
The two men rarely if ever speak one on one, and people have overheard Sessions joking that he checks Trump's Twitter for updates.
Sessions is prepared for whatever outcome awaits him -- including being fired.