Washington Post: Despite Trump's taunting and harassment, whistleblowers remain undaunted

from Joe Davidson

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Published on November 09, 2019

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Washington Post: Despite Trump’s taunting and harassment, whistleblowers remain undaunted

For a man whose job includes protecting federal whistleblowers, President Trump’s actions to undermine one in particular could hamper whistleblowers generally.

Yet, despite intimidation from the nation’s highest office, the Ukraine matter whistleblower — actually, whistleblowers — remains undaunted.

“The harassing and taunting comments, usually rife with hate but truly masking fear, that have emanated from the president and his allies have done nothing to deter the whistleblowers,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who represents them. “They fulfilled their lawful obligations to the Constitution of the United States, and they did so following the rule of law.”

Zaid used “whistleblowers” in the plural and “they” to indicate there is more than one anonymous whistleblower and to avoid specifying gender to protect their identities. While most attention has focused on the first whistleblower, The Washington Post and other media outlets reported in October that a second person had spoken to the inspector general of the intelligence community.

Trump and his allies have urged exposure of the initial whistleblower, who works at the CIA, an agency that zealously protects its staffers’ identities. Tweets from Trump and his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., have included messages that purport to unmask the individual. Earlier, the president issued a veiled threat, equating the whistleblower “with spies and treason,” saying “you know what we used to do in the old days” — meaning execution.

Trump called the whistleblower “a disgrace” on Friday, one day after another of the whistleblower’s lawyers, Andrew Bakaj, sent the White House a letter saying the president’s “reckless and dangerous” rhetoric could put his client “in physical danger.”

Whistleblower confidentiality is a core element in a system that encourages government employees to report waste, fraud and abuse through a process that protects them from reprisals — a concept Trump apparently doesn’t appreciate. If the president can upset that process, it would enable agency retaliation against other whistleblowers.

The initial whistleblower, who reported concerns that Trump wanted to trade military assistance in exchange for information from a foreign government on a political rival, wants to remain anonymous to avoid actions like those the president has demonstrated.

Beyond this particular whistleblower, Trump’s words undermine the integrity of the whistleblower process that Republicans, until Trump, and Democrats generally have vigorously protected. Yet, noble rhetoric to the contrary, federal managers have a long and sordid history of retaliation against whistleblowers — but not with the president leading the charge.

“There are very few laws for which the President, as part of his mandatory job duties, must perform,” Stephen M. Kohn, a whistleblower rights attorney and chairman of the National Whistleblower Center, said by email. “Protecting intelligence community whistleblowers is one of them. President Trump is not only prohibited from retaliating against the whistleblower, he has the duty [original emphasis] to protect the whistleblower.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations, said Trump’s actions “could have a chilling effect on the very whistleblowers we rely on to root out corruption and fraud in the federal government.” His counterpart, Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), the top Republican on the panel and a vigorous Trump defender, did not respond to a request for comment.

Outing the Ukraine whistleblower “who followed the law completely undermines the process Congress created to ensure members of the intelligence community disclose wrongdoing through legal channels,” said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan independent federal watchdog organization.

Calls to expose the whistleblower amount to a double smokescreen. They distract from the main issue regarding Trump’s push for a Ukrainian investigation into the son of former vice president Joe Biden and divert attention from the numerous officials who have corroborated the initial information.

If you call into question the law’s protection, you undercut the whole purpose of the law,” said Ronald E. Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former career ambassador and deputy assistant secretary of state. “And that is doubly true in this case, where virtually everything in the whistleblower complaint has been validated now by other people,” making the whistleblower’s identity “completely irrelevant.”

Trump’s attitude toward the Ukraine whistleblowers is not totally inconsistent with government officials, under Republican and Democratic administrations, that too often choose to shoot the messenger.

“Trump’s behavior is in line with how most whistleblowers are treated,” said Rosemary Dew, who has written a manuscript about FBI whistleblowers and who also was one. Agencies often attempt to “discredit them instead of investigating whether the issues they raise are valid. It’s known as ‘nuts and sluts,’ which means the agency attacks the whistleblower’s morality and sanity, and often invests huge amounts of taxpayer money to achieve this.”

Despite attacks by Trump and his supporters against the Ukraine whistleblower, others, like the CIA employee, will not be dissuaded from exposing wrongdoing, according to one who did.

“Whistleblowers cannot be stopped,” said Frederic Whitehurst, a former FBI scientist who exposed transgressions in the FBI crime lab.

“I don’t think that current or future whistleblowers will be less willing to come forward. In fact, I think [Trump] waved a red flag in front of that bull and it will charge with that much more intensity,” he added. “We are seeing that in the line of witnesses outside the congressional hearings waiting to testify.”

Whitehurst said “bullies” won’t stop whistleblowers, because they “and their attorneys are just getting smarter about how to survive the attacks that come after they report corruption. . . . We are fighting for this nation as surely as if we were in combat against a foreign enemy. And we are simply winning this war.”

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