Yesterday, citing a source outside the West Wing, the Times itself reported that Trump’s team had narrowed it down to a list of 12 or so people. If you believe CNN, it sounds like the list has gotten smaller since then:
Aides to President Donald Trump believe they have the search for the anonymous author of the New York Times op-ed that shook the political world down to a few individuals, a source close to the White House told CNN on Friday.
Trump is still “obsessed” with finding the person, though he is being counseled by White House chief of staff John Kelly to let it pass, to avoid bringing more attention to the claims in the op-ed. The opinion piece was written by an anonymous senior administration official alleging an internal resistance to the President in his own administration.
CNN doesn’t know who the remaining suspects are — but it’s interesting that Kelly wants to move on from it. You can chalk that up to basic good politics if you like. Every day that the op-ed remains in the news is a day that voters are being reminded that someone in Trump’s own administration thinks he’s dangerously unfit for office.
But you might also speculate that Kelly wants to move on because he fears (knows?) that he might be in hot water if and when the author’s name is revealed. New from Gabriel Sherman:
According to three sources, Jared and Ivanka floated a theory on Wednesday that Kelly could be behind the Times op-ed. Under this scenario, the sources said, the op-ed was written by Zachary Fuentes, the deputy chief of staff, at the direction of Kelly. Jared and Ivanka have told people they suspect this because Kelly is the only one with an ego so large as to have convinced himself that he’s saving the country from Trump, which was one of the op-ed’s principal arguments. On Wednesday night, Ivanka and Jared laid out for Trump the theory that Fuentes might be the author, an outside adviser with knowledge of the conversation told me. (A White House spokesperson said this is “untrue.” Fuentes has denied writing the piece.)
Trump is reportedly unconvinced by the Fuentes theory, which may be nothing more than Javanka cooking up a smear to bring down their old enemy Kelly. If you reason that it’s likely Kelly’s fingerprints are on the op-ed somehow after all his sturm and drang with Trump over the past year but also unlikely that he’d do something as dishonorable as fragging his own boss anonymously in the Times, then him putting Fuentes up to writing it makes some sense. Both men deny it, though.
And Fuentes isn’t the only deputy whose name is being kicked around. A pair of interesting tweets yesterday from two very tapped-in reporters after Nikki Haley’s op-ed was published:
This Nikki Haley piece is getting a bit of attention inside the WH. And not in a good way. https://t.co/v3V2uKmzWF
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) September 7, 2018
Some folks in White House who had Lerner at top of mind as a suspect giving this a skeptical eye https://t.co/9BtuLq3644
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) September 7, 2018
“Lerner” is Jon Lerner, a longtime member of Haley’s inner circle. He’s an interesting suspect. He’s an ideological conservative, having spent years working for Haley, Jim DeMint, the anti-Trump Club for Growth, and a pro-Rubio Super PAC in 2016. Haley insisted that he join her as a deputy at the UN, but back in April Lerner also briefly worked as a national security advisor to Mike Pence. That didn’t sit well with POTUS given Lerner’s track record of working for outfits that opposed him during the GOP primaries; Lerner quietly withdrew as an advisor to Pence after a few days to help ease the tension between Trump and the VP. A day later, Breitbart greeted the news with this headline: “Nikki Haley’s deputy ambassador led ‘Never Trump’ movement, launched Zuckerberg’s open borders group.” You can see why the president and his team would view Lerner as a prime suspect vis-a-vis the NYT op-ed.
And you can also see why, under the circumstances, Haley would scramble to pen a column of her own yesterday distancing herself from the op-ed. If Lerner’s under suspicion, naturally she’ll end up under suspicion as somehow having encouraged him to write it. The best-case scenario is that she believes Lerner’s innocent and is trying to signal to Trump that no one on her team had a hand in the NYT thing. Yesterday’s column was a de facto vow not just of innocence but of loyalty. The worst-case scenario is that she believes — or knows — that Lerner’s guilty and she’s desperately trying to put some distance between her and him before he’s outed. If Lerner did in fact write it, that’s going to create an impossibly awkward, maybe untenable situation for Haley in the cabinet. Even if there’s zero evidence that she knew or condoned what he was up to, would Trump give her the benefit of the doubt on that? And should he? There are plenty of “senior officials” who may hate him but probably don’t hate the cabinet member whom they answer to. If Trump wants to drive home to those officials that they should either be a team player or quit government, holding the head of the department responsible for any insubordination by that person’s underlings would do it. If it’s Lerner, he probably won’t care if he ends up being fired — but if Trump fires Haley too, wrecking her chances at the nomination in 2024, he’ll care.
Which is probably why he’s not the author either. He would have known before writing it that the price of being discovered will likely be the end of his good friend’s presidential prospects. In the end, he’d have done more to hurt Haley than Trump.
Here’s Bill Maher naming John Kelly as his prime suspect. Eh. Sherman reports that Jon Huntsman is also under suspicion, but Huntsman had a golden opportunity to resign in protest in July, after Trump’s embarrassing press conference in Helsinki with Putin. All sorts of anti-Trumpers identified him as perfectly situated to do so: He’s the ambassador to Russia and, as both an Obama alum and a member of the GOP establishment, clearly not a MAGA true believer. That was his moment to take a stand. Huntsman declined. Why do that only to turn around two months later and write an anonymous op-ed making all of the points he could have made in a resignation letter? Does he love his job that much? Or is he afraid that if he quits Trump will nominate Maria Butina for the position?