Prosecutors says no laws were likely broken by the article, and The Times says an investigation would be an abuse of power
Washington: President Donald Trump on Friday intensified his attack on an anonymous op-ed essay published in The New York Times, declaring that he wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the source of the article, condemning as an act of treason.
Trump said he was also considering action against The Times, though he did not elaborate. Prosecutors said it would be inappropriate for the Justice Department to conduct such an investigation, since it was likely that no laws were broken, while The Times said it would be an abuse of power.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One as he travelled to Fargo, North Dakota, Trump said: “I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was because I really believe it’s national security.”
The president has raged against the essay since The Times published it Wednesday afternoon, setting off a frenzy of speculation in the capital about the identity of the author and prompting a parade of denials from Cabinet members and other prominent officials in the Trump administration.
Trump’s latest remarks indicate he wants to use the machinery of the government to root out the source of the op-ed, which described some administration officials as being in a state of near mutiny against a president they view as dangerous and untethered from reality. “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,” he said.
While the president suggested that the anonymous writer was not a senior official, he said the person might nonetheless have a security clearance that allows him or her to attend sensitive national security meetings involving China, Russia or North Korea. “I don’t want him in those meetings,” Trump said.
To set an investigation into motion, the White House counsel’s office would normally contact the Justice Department. It is not clear whether the White House has done that. A spokeswoman for the department said it does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.
“For the Justice Department to investigate, you need a good-faith belief that a federal statute has been violated, and I can’t think of a law that would be violated by sharing information — that is not classified — in an op-ed,” said Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.
“If you believe the author had a duty of loyalty to the president,” McQuade said, “there may have been an ethical violation, but that does not violate the law.”
In a statement, The Times said, “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 statement said.
Lawyers said it would be difficult for the White House to sue the author even if that person had signed a nondisclosure agreement. These agreements are difficult to enforce, even more so when the speech at issue could be interpreted as being in the public interest.