Let’s just say that the whistle-blower who raised alerts about President Trump’s misconduct this summer turns out to be a nose-picking Communist who double parks.
Would it really make any difference?
The answer is no — the facts are the facts, no matter who reported them. But the very act of outing the whistle-blower, no matter who he or she is, definitely would make a difference — by severely undermining the credibility of a whistle-blower system designed to protect government workers who come forward to report waste or wrongdoing.
President Trump and his Congressional lickspittles, though, have renewed their efforts to drag the whistle-blower into the spotlight. Right-wing media outlets have been circulating the name of a person they suspect filed the report, and House Republicans say they want to subpoena the whistle-blower to testify publicly. The president has even urged news outlets to publish the suspected whistle-blower’s name (virtually none have). Meanwhile, the whistle-blower’s lawyers have received a flood of threats.
It’s dangerous rhetoric. Members of Congress who care about whistle-blowers need to ensure that this one is protected, or else it will chill the willingness of government employees to flag problems without fear of retaliation in the future.
The whistle-blower is a member of the intelligence community who heard from colleagues about efforts by the president to enlist a foreign country to help his 2020 reelection campaign. Following the rules, the official filed a report outlining the flagrant abuse of power, which triggered the impeachment inquiry when the House learned of it.
If the whistle-blower complaint were the sole foundation of the impeachment inquiry, that would be one thing. But it’s not. Whatever personal biases the official may have, his or her complaint has now been confirmed by multiple other witnesses in sworn testimony. Indeed, the depositions by senior State Department and administration officials have painted a picture even more damning than what the whistle-blower knew. Turns out that not only did Trump ask the president of Ukraine to smear Joe Biden, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, but he withheld military aid that Ukraine needs to counter Russian aggression in a bid to extort the country into agreeing to his request.
In other words, the system worked. A whistle-blower raised concerns. Investigators — first the intelligence community’s inspector general, and now Congress — didn’t take the official’s word for it, but instead launched an inquiry that has confirmed the report.
According to the president, he has the right to know who the whistle-blower is so he can face his accuser, just like any defendant. That’s absurd. For one thing, impeachment is not a trial (the actual trial would take place in the Senate, if the House delivers articles of impeachment), making the comparison to criminal standards irrelevant. The most damaging evidence against Trump comes from the depositions, not the whistle-blower. That includes statements from the president’s own appointees, including Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who this week revised his testimony to acknowledge the president’s desire to shake down Ukraine.
Fixating on the mystery of the whistle-blower’s identity is a clear effort by the president’s allies to distract from the daily onslaught of damaging disclosures. Worse, it’s clear that the motive for unmasking the official is to deter other officials from sounding the alarm about the president, and to provide the right-wing echo chamber with the grist to build one of its fabulist conspiracy theories. The way that the president’s supporters have smeared Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. Vindman, a National Security Council official whose testimony was damaging to the president, is a foretaste of what’s in store for the whistle-blower if that official’s name becomes public.
If the president is successful at exposing and smearing the whistle-blower, the big winner, ironically, will be the media. That’s because if officials lose trust in the whistle-blower system, and don’t believe their identity will be protected, they’re more likely to resort to leaks to reporters to bring malfeasance to the public’s attention. The Washington Post kept Deep Throat’s identity a secret for three decades; if the federal government can’t protect the Ukraine whistle-blower for three months, guess who the next official with a troubled conscience will call?
If members of Congress don’t want that to happen, they need to speak up against the Republicans trying to expose the whistle-blower. Democrats have defended the whistle-blower, but have been joined by only a handful of GOP senators, particularly Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. Grassley told reporters it was “strictly up to the whistle-blower” whether to come forward. “A person like me that has advocated for whistle-blowers for a long period of time, including this whistle-blower, I want maximum protection for whistle-blowers,” he said.
Maximum protection would require telling the president that he’ll be held accountable if he reveals the whistle-blower’s name or asks others to do so. The president and his allies may want to distract the public, spin conspiracy theories, and scare off other government employees from reporting wrongdoing, but Congress should make clear that they must follow the law instead.