The White House on Monday sought to project an image of productive forward momentum, even as President Donald Trump and many of his aides remain sidetracked and preoccupied by dual accounts of a warring and mutinous West Wing.
The suggestion that work continues apace inside the administration was belied by Trump himself, who spent much of the morning tweeting angrily about journalist Bob Woodward, whose book detailing dysfunction among Trump aides is released on Tuesday.
Woodward’s account was reinforced by an anonymous op-ed by a senior administration official published last week in The New York Times that described staffers working to stave off Trump’s destructive instincts.
Both have enraged the President and led to new levels of suspicion among his staff, many of whom were already at odds with each other. Trump raised the specter of launching a criminal investigation into the matter last week, suggesting the Justice Department look into who wrote the unnamed editorial.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders refused to back down from that idea on Monday, despite the fact that there’s no indication any laws were broken. Instead, Sanders said just the notion the unidentified official may be involved in national security matters was grounds enough to launch a probe.
“If that individual is in meetings where national security is being discussed, or other important topics, and they are attempting to undermine the executive branch, that would certainly be problematic and something that the Department of Justice should look into,” Sanders said in her first briefing since the editorial was published last week.
Asked whether the administration is attempting to ferret out the culprit, Sanders said the staff is “focused on things that actually matter.”
“It’s frankly, I think, sad and pathetic that a gutless, anonymous source could receive so much attention from the media and I think that the American people would be much better served if we actually spent some time talking about some of the really important things that are facing our country and the things that this administration is the doing to help fix them,” she said.
It was a forceful return to the briefing room for Sanders, who went 19 days without an on-camera press conference. Before she stepped into the room, aides were seen wiping dust from her podium and polishing the video screens that sit behind her.
She denied that polygraph machines were being deployed to seek out the anonymous writer, even though Vice President Mike Pence declared on Sunday he was prepared to strap into a lie detector machine to prove his own innocence.
“No lie detectors are being used or talked about or looked at as a possibility. Frankly, the White House and the staff here are focused on doing our jobs,” she told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny.
White House staffers, she said, aren’t focused on “(dealing) with cowards that refuse to put their names in an anonymous letter.”
That claim aside, people inside the West Wing say the identity of the writer remains a topic of heated discussion as reports emerged that a list of possible authors had been drawn up. Trump himself has shown little willingness to let Woodward’s claims go by the wayside, tweeting the famed Watergate journalist “is a liar who is like a Dem operative prior to the midterms.”
Earlier, Trump said he would pen his own book with the real story of his accomplishments.
“The Woodward book is a Joke - just another assault against me, in a barrage of assaults, using now disproven unnamed and anonymous sources,” Trump wrote. “Many have already come forward to say the quotes by them, like the book, are fiction. Dems can’t stand losing. I’ll write the real book!”
Several administration officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and chief of staff John Kelly, have denied the anecdotes and quotes ascribed to them in Woodward’s book. Similarly, The New York Times op-ed prompted a parade of statements from top administration officials denying responsibility.
Sanders wouldn’t rule out a lawsuit against Woodward on Monday, though Trump has long threatened legal action against his detractors that never materializes.
Asked later whether the White House would list all the things in Woodward’s book that are wrong, Sanders said such an exercise “would be a complete and utter waste of our time, so no.”
Pressed on whether Trump can win a credibility battle with the Pulitzer winner who helped expose President Richard Nixon’s Watergate-era transgressions, Sanders pointed to “actual, on record” accounts from White House staffers, again pointing to Mattis and Kelly, “not disgruntled former employees.”
Asked if Trump is still a credible voice, Sanders insisted he was: “Absolutely.”
CNN’s Betsy Klein continued to this report.