Mystery builds over anonymous Trump official’s identity

The hunt for the identify of the senior administration official who penned a scathing and anonymous op-ed in The New York Times picked up steam on Thursday as dozens of high-ranking Trump officials issued statements denying they were behind it.

A day after President TrumpDonald John TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could MORE called the op-ed describing efforts to impede some of his decisions an act of treason, conservatives in Congress said they were exploring the possibility of investigations, legislation or hearings to learn the author’s name.

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Lawmakers will be racing with the media, which itself is trying to discover which official close to Trump wrote the Times opinion piece, titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.”

The White House did not respond Thursday to questions from The Hill about whether there is an active search to discover the identity of the author or whether administration officials were encouraged to issue denials, but Trump’s fury at learning of the op-ed coupled with the denials from officials strongly suggested an effort to discover the culprit was on the way.

The White House also went scorched-earth on the Times: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shared the phone number for the news outlet’s opinion desk and urged followers to call the newspaper with questions about the piece.

Trump, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general Top Dem demands State Department documents on Khashoggi killing MORE each blasted the newspaper for running the op-ed at all.

Trump suggested the author doesn't exist and called on the newspaper to prove him wrong by turning the individual over to the government for “national security purposes.”

Pence called the decision to publish the op-ed a “new low in American journalism.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' House passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency Dem rep hopes Omar can be 'mentored,' remain on Foreign Affairs panel MORE (R-Calif.) said the administration should seek out the author.

“I think that's a real problem if that person stays in the job they currently are in,” he said.

And House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) didn’t rule out the possibility of a congressional probe.

“I'm sure we have a number of members that are looking at it right now,” Scalise, the No. 3 Republican in House leadership, told The Hill.

Other Republicans soft-peddled the idea of a congressional witch hunt, which almost certainly would end up in the courts — at least if efforts were made to bring in Times employees to discover the news outlet’s sources.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRubio discovers Native American heritage through TV show Feminine hygiene products to be available to House lawmakers using congressional funds Former Ryan aide moves to K street MORE (R-Wis.) said he did not see a role for Congress in finding the anonymous official.

Trump's allies declined to speculate on the potential author, but echoed the president's rhetoric in placing blame on the individual.

“I think this person is a coward,” former Trump adviser Michael Caputo told The Hill, arguing the author was attempting to sow distrust among the president and his aides.

Caputo argued that the individual used terms like “lodestar” and “off the rails” as a way of focusing attention on Pence and White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE.

“If there is a movement which this individual claims there is — and I haven't seen it — that is what the deep state is,” former Trump campaign manager Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiOvernight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Zinke, Lewandowski join Trump veterans’ lobbying firm Trump campaign spent nearly 0K of donor money on law firm representing Kushner MORE said on CNN.

Lewandowski declined to speak with The Hill about the op-ed, but he told CNN that the author could be one of a few dozen West Wing staffers or it could be one of the thousands of mid-level government agency employees. 

“If you don’t like your job, you have a right to air that grievance, but you do so in public, and if you want to quit your job, you can do that,” he said. “But attacking someone anonymously is not helpful or beneficial to anybody, and it sure doesn't solve any problem.”

The media loves a mystery, meaning Trump and his Cabinet members likely will have to live with speculation about who wrote the stinging op-ed until the person’s identity comes out — or the media moves on from the story.

CNN's Chris Cillizza compiled a list of 13 possible authors, and former Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Exclusive: Biden almost certain to enter 2020 race MORE aide Philippe Reines tweeted a list of nearly 20 potential writers that included top-ranking and mid-level officials.

Fox News's Tucker Carlson, whose show Trump has quoted often, asserted late Wednesday that he has a “pretty good idea” who wrote the op-ed, but did not elaborate.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers largely kept their suspicions to themselves.

“I have my opinions, but I'm not sure. I don't want to put them in the press — I'll put it that way,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsWinners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration Rod Rosenstein’s final insult to Congress: Farewell time for reporters but not testimony MORE (R-N.C.) said.

The statements from Cabinet members and other officials denying authorship are likely to appease Trump, who often speaks about his desire for loyalty. On Wednesday, he had praised Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents Does ‘limited war’ mean limited risks for aggressors? US-led coalition says it struck Syrian mosque used by ISIS MORE and Kelly for pushing back against claims in Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book about the Trump White House.

However, the denials are unlikely to slow the frenzied speculation over the identity of the individual who described efforts among some staff to “thwart” the president's “worst inclinations.”

“It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room,” the author wrote. “We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”

Juliegrace Brufke and Morgan Chalfant contributed.