WASHINGTON — Every week is remarkable. Practically every day is bizarre. So how to describe days that are even more remarkably and bizarrely unprecedented than the last?
Surreal barely hints at the mind-bending dramatic spectacle of Donald Trump’s Washington this week.
It’s as if the reality television show that has consumed the nation’s capital for 20 months is working its way toward a jaw-dropping season finale, but the tension is never relieved. It’s the cliffhanger that won’t end.
The latest installment features a modern-day whodunit wrapped around the core of a constitutional crisis in the executive branch. Trump himself, in a tweet Wednesday night, penned what could be the title page: TREASON?
A parade of top officials came forward Thursday to deny that they were the authors of a scathing, anonymous op-ed in The New York Times that essentially called the president a national security risk. The denials landed amid a frenzy of speculation about the identity of the author.
“Our office is above such amateur acts,” said a spokesman for Vice President Mike Pence.
“It’s not mine,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters while traveling in India.
“It is laughable to think this could come from the secretary,” said a spokesman for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“Patently false,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said of the suggestion he was the author.
“No,” United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said on her way to a Security Council meeting.
At least two dozen others — including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — also denied being the authors (although, adding to the intrigue, some noted on Thursday that Mark Felt denied in 1974 that he was the source for The Washington Post’s explosive stories that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, only to admit in 2005 that he was the source known as Deep Throat).
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders released a remarkable statement about the “media’s wild obsession with the identity of the anonymous coward.”
“If you want to know who this gutless loser is, call the opinion desk of the failing NYT . . . and ask them,” she wrote, releasing a phone number for the newspaper. “They are the ones complicit in this deceitful act.”
But by all accounts the topic of who wrote the piece was consuming the White House, with reports that staffers were delivering to Trump printed messages containing the statements of denial from his top officials. Trump on Wednesday night tweeted that if “the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!”
‘The biggest issue they’re going to have is who wouldn’t have written something like that.’
“It’s almost as if a volcano is erupting in the White House,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer declared midday.
Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, suggested that it would be justified for Trump to start using a lie detector test to find out who wrote the column.
The intrigue around who wrote it temporarily overshadowed what was actually written. It also seemed lost that the list of people who could have potentially written it was long — an indication of just how widely insubordination could be spreading through the administration.
If even the vice president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense fell under immediate suspicion, what does that say about Trump’s command of the levers of government? Does Trump have any loyal lieutenants left?
One of the most striking revelations of the anonymous op-ed was that Cabinet members had discussed invoking the 25th Amendment, which would declare the president unfit to carry out his duties.
But the overall portrait in the article was a familiar one, of an incurious and impetuous president who cannot be fully contained by those around him — and who craves loyalty but is presiding over an administration with historic levels of staff turnover.
“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,” the author wrote.
There have been similar warnings before. A striking aspect of the reaction across the political spectrum is that no one is truly shocked by allegations that the president of the United States is not fit for office, that the country is better off with a staff controlling his worst impulses.
It was almost a year ago that Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter: “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”
Corker on Thursday had a blunt message: I told you so.
“I didn’t look at it as new news. This is the reality we’re living in,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “The biggest issue they’re going to have is who wouldn’t have written something like that.”
Another Republican senator seemed to agree.
“It’s just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week,” Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Thursday. “So it’s really troubling, and yet in a way, not surprising.”
The same conclusion is drawn by legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, whose new book — “Fear: Trump in the White House” — claims top advisers have removed papers from Trump’s desk to avoid him signing them, or simply ignore his commands.
“He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything,” John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, is quoted as saying. “He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazytown.”
It was almost easy to forget Thursday that inside the Capitol there was a high-stakes hearing about a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. Even that got off to a dramatic start on a day that highlighted Washington’s crippling partisanship and internal hostilities that have brought Congress to its virtual knees.
On Thursday morning, Democratic senators released confidential documents related to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, triggering threats from Republicans that they were violating rules that could force them to be ousted from the Senate.
“Bring it,” Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said several times. “Bring it.”
But later in the day it appeared the theater may have been even more manufactured than normal.
The documents had apparently been cleared for release hours earlier, so Booker wasn’t releasing something that was still considered confidential (as he claimed), and he wasn’t violating any Senate rules (as Republicans claimed).
But even with a range of other issues in front of them, few could get away from the speculation about who wrote the Times column.
“It probably won’t take long for us to find out who wrote it,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. “The vice president — that was my first thought. . . . Could have been Coats, Pompeo. They denied they wrote it. By process of elimination, you come down to the butler.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.