(CNN) — President Donald Trump, showing his outrage over Bob Woodward’s explosive new book, is ordering a real witch hunt in the West Wing and throughout his administration, asking loyal aides to help determine who cooperated with the book.
“The book is fiction,” Trump said Wednesday in the Oval Office alongside the Emir of Kuwait.
But even as the President publicly fumes, he’s privately on a mission to determine who did — and didn’t — talk to Woodward, CNN has learned. Two officials who have spoken directly to the President say he is pleased with the denials offered by chief of staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Trump himself highlighted the denials of Mattis and Kelly, saying that both men were “insulted” by the comments Woodward attributed to them.
“Gen. Mattis has come out very, very strongly…He was insulted by the remarks that were attributed to him,” Trump said. “John Kelly, same thing. He was insulted by what they said. He couldn’t believe what they said.”
In Trump’s eyes, what makes or breaks aides who are reported to have made disparaging comments about him is how strongly they push back on the accusations.
Unlike Kelly and Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson never denied calling Trump a “moron” and a former senior White House official said Trump “never forgave him for it.”
But he is also taking note of the silence from several other former administration officials.
“He wants to know who talked to Woodward,” one of the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity amid the highly tense atmosphere in the West Wing in the wake of the book.
The search for leakers inside the administration contrasts with the White House’s defense that the book was fueled by “disgruntled employees,” offered by press secretary Sarah Sanders and others.
One source close to the White House said people inside the administration are “frustrated because they know it’s true.”
Trump has talked openly with allies about his suspicion that former national security adviser H.R. McMaster cooperated, suggesting that McMaster likely turned over his notes to Woodward. The President has aired a similar belief about Gary Cohn, the former chief economic adviser.
Both men, of course, play key roles in the book.
The President is directing the response strategy personally, officials say, in consultation with top communications official Bill Shine and other aides. At this point, it seems unlikely that anyone is immediately fired because of the book, one official says, because that would “lend credence to a book he is trying to discredit.”
More broadly, the White House’s emerging strategy to push back against Woodward’s reporting seems to be going after those former officials suspected of sharing documents and stories, according to several people familiar with the game plan.
“You don’t discredit Bob Woodward. You discredit the motives of the people” who provided the information, one person said.
Evidently caught off guard by the level of detail in the book, White House officials were soliciting advice from allies on how to respond to the book as recently as this weekend, a person familiar with those conversations said.
Sanders also tried brushing off the book as a rehash of old — incorrect — stories.
“Certainly just because they keep getting told doesn’t make them more true,” Sanders said.
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