SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., now the U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Thursday he's not the anonymous senior Trump administration official who wrote a New York Times op-ed highly critical of the president.
"Come to find, when you’re serving as the U.S. envoy in Moscow, you’re an easy target on all sides. Anything sent out by me would have carried my name. An early political lesson I learned: Never send an anonymous op-ed," Huntsman said.
His statement was tweeted by embassy spokeswoman Andrea Kalan after the Daily Mail posted a story quoting an unnamed U.S. State Department lawyer suggesting Huntsman could be the op-ed's author.
"I could see it being Huntsman," the British tabloid quoted the lawyer as saying Thursday. "Some of it fits, and he's the kind of guy who would see it as his duty to undermine the boss for a greater good."
The tabloid said the lawyer "emphasized that there's no hard evidence to point to the diplomat. But like the op-ed's writer, Huntsman 'worshipped at (John) McCain's feet' and considered him 'the best example of an honorable guy in the Senate.’"
The New York Times op-ed is titled, "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration," and states that many senior officials "are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations." The Times says it knows the identity of the senior official.
It uses the president's reluctance to expel Russian spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain as an example of how those around Trump "knew better," calling their actions "the work of the steady state."
The op-ed, published online Wednesday and in Thursday's print edition, cites McCain as "a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue." The Arizona senator died of brain cancer and was honored in ceremonies last week.
Huntsman, who returned to the United States from Moscow to attend funeral services for McCain in Washington last Saturday, told the Deseret News that aside from his father, McCain was his greatest mentor.
"It was the highest honor to associate with him. He was a mentor in many ways. Country first and bipartisanship were deeply ingrained due to his influence," Huntsman said of McCain, a longtime friend.
The Russian embassy tweet included a retweet of a statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, telling reporters who want to know the identity of "the gutless loser" who wrote the op-ed to call the "failing" New York Times.
"The media's wild obsession with the identity of the anonymous coward is recklessly tarnishing the reputation of thousands of great Americans who proudly serve our country and work for President Trump," Sanders said.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, slammed the op-ed.
“The author of this op-ed is a liar while pretending to fill an office and complete a duty that they are clearly not willing to do. The American people elected Donald Trump as our president and they should be trusted," Stewart said in a statement.
"I don't believe this type of behavior is good for our country. This nameless op-ed is an act of cowardice and plays into the hands of those who wish to further divide us," he said.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, also took issue with the op-ed being unsigned but suggested he took some inspiration from it.
"Anytime something is authored by an anonymous source, regardless of party affiliation, it gives me some pause. It is difficult for me to weigh the seriousness of these claims without first knowing who is making them," Curtis said in a statement.
He said he does "strongly agree with their statement that 'the real difference will be made by everyday citizens rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one: Americans."
Curtis said he is "recommitting as a representative of Utah to be that kind of leader."
Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, said she was "deeply concerned about the content in the New York Times op-ed, as well as by the fact that the New York Times published the work of an anonymous source."
She called for restoring the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government.
"The chaos represented by the op-ed is exactly why I’ve been shouting from the rooftops that we need to adhere to Article 1 principles, restrict the powers of the White House and leave legislating to Congress," Love said.
Utahns are likely to have a "mixed response" to the op-ed, said Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, with supporters dismissing it as "just more fake news from someone not even willing to put their name" on it.
Perry said the op-ed notes what it terms "bright spots" from the administration, including "effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military" that are important to many Utahns, along with conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"There are some of those key issues that if they remain strong, people are willing to overlook a lot, even in Utah," he said, limiting the effect of the op-ed as well as Bob Woodward's new book, "Fear," about the Trump administration.
"I would not say that this op-ed or the Bob Woodward book would have no impact. It will have some impact," Perry said. "Mostly, it goes back to the pile of evidence people opposed to the administration have put together."
In the end, Perry said, no one will come out of the controversy looking very good.
"This is not a great reflection of what we are as a country," he said. "The allegations, whether they are true or not, are creating discord. Our elected officials, I think, have a responsiblity to try to bring more people together."
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jenny Wilson said she can’t “fathom” Trump winning a second term “because America can’t take it anymore.”
“I think this administration is just in complete disarray. I think that we can’t do anything to govern until change is made,” the Salt Lake County councilwoman said.
Wilson said she doesn’t think the op-ed is made up. She said there’s enough evidence from Trump’s “unfiltered” tweets and “alarming” and “derogatory” statements to show that.
“It’s clear to me it’s a true account of what’s happening,” she said.
On whether it would affect Trump’s ability to govern, Wilson said, “I think he is what impacts his ability to govern, or lack thereof, going forward.”
Wilson said she'd like to hear how her Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, would "straddle" the issues raised by the op-ed.
Romney declined to comment, according to his campaign spokeswoman, MJ Henshaw.
Utah House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, called the op-ed unprecedented in the nation’s history in terms of the president and presidential power.
“It’s really alarming to me that we have people that close to the president who are knowingly and intentionally deceiving him, taking action that is designed to obfuscate and to impede and not being honest with him,” King said.
“What you’re dealing with here is a civil war, within not just the executive branch, within the office of the presidency in a way that reveals a lot of troubling things," he said. "I don’t care if you’re a Trump supporter or a Trump hater."
Utah State University journalism professor Tom Terry said while he opposes the use of anonymous sources on principle, "there are extraordinary cases that may warrant it," to ensure the public has access to critical information.
"The New York Times knew it was going to get a lot of heat, but I guess in this case, I would support them doing it," Terry said of taking what he termed a "pretty extraordinary step" for a newspaper.
"Do I think it was, from a journalistic point of view, fulfilling the purposes of the First Amendment? I think they did the right thing," he said.
"Specifically, creating an informed populace."