Trump's Demand to Unmask Whistle-Blower Roils Impeachment Inquiry
U.S. President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)  

Trump's Demand to Unmask Whistle-Blower Roils Impeachment Inquiry

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump and his Republican allies are dialing up pressure to unmask the Ukraine whistle-blower in a breathtaking departure from how allegations of corruption and waste have been handled by both parties for years.

The push to identify the anonymous intelligence official risks deterring future whistle-blowers from coming forward -- particularly in the House Democrats’ current impeachment inquiry -- even as lawyers for the official are negotiating with House and Senate committees over an appearance for closed-door interviews.

The whistle-blower’s complaint is central to the House Democrats’ current impeachment inquiry, with the potential to lead to other witnesses with first-hand knowledge of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Trump's Demand to Unmask Whistle-Blower Roils Impeachment Inquiry

But the whistle-blower’s identity could also help Trump’s allies identify other officials in the White House who gave the person information about the telephone conversation and efforts to “lock down” the records of the call.

Trump referred to the whistle-blower as a “spy” in a closed-door meeting last week and has said several times that he deserves to know the whistle-blower’s identity. On Tuesday, Trump called for the whistle-blower to be interviewed by his representatives, amid a series of statements about the content of the whistle-blower’s report that have been debunked by the White House transcript and the Trump-appointed inspector general of the intelligence community.

“So if the so-called ‘Whistleblower’ has all second hand information, and almost everything he has said about my ‘perfect’ call with the Ukrainian President is wrong (much to the embarrassment of Pelosi & Schiff), why aren’t we entitled to interview & learn everything,” Trump said on Twitter, about “the whistle-blower, and also the person who gave all of the false information to him.”

The memorandum of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy corroborated the whistle-blower’s description of the conversation, and the White House has also corroborated a claim that the memo was stored in a system intended for highly sensitive information.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, echoed the sentiment of other Republicans in a tweet: “It’s imperative we find out which officials supplied the whistle-blower with information to file a complaint. Who are they? What was their agenda?”

Experts say it will be difficult in this atmosphere to keep the whistle-blower’s identity under wraps.

“I’m not aware of a circumstance in which” a whistle-blower from the intelligence community “has made allegations of this magnitude and managed to remain anonymous,” said Patrick Eddington, a former CIA employee who revealed U.S. soldiers’ exposure to toxins during the 1991 Gulf war. He is now a research fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank.

One of the whistle-blower’s lawyers, Andrew Bakaj, alerted lawmakers that a $50,000 “bounty” has been offered for information about his client’s identity and warned that could make it more dangerous for others to come forward.

“The Intel Community Whistle-blower is entitled to anonymity,” Bakaj tweeted. “Law and policy support this and the individual is not to be retaliated against. Doing so is a violation of federal law.”

‘Dangerous’ Response

Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, on Monday tweeted, “We are going to get to the bottom of the whistle-blower’s allegations, but we cannot lose sight of how truly dangerous the president’s response to these allegations has been.”

Some Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee member Chuck Grassley of Iowa, have long depicted themselves as vigilant protectors of whistle-blowers.

Those stances are being tested now.

Grassley said Tuesday that the whistle-blower who raised an alert about Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president followed the law and deserves to be protected.

The statement from the senior Republican lawmaker represents a rebuke of Trump’s call for the anonymous intelligence official to be unmasked. “We should always work to respect whistle-blowers’ requests for confidentiality,” Grassley said.

Whistle-blowers are supposed to be protected from retaliation by superiors, and the law outlines the procedures. The processes in the intelligence community has some variations from those for the rest of the federal government. Their scope also depend on whether the whistle-blower is a government employee, contractor or in the military.

The intelligence community’s inspector general on Monday reiterated that the whistle-blower complaint “appeared credible.” He also rebutted allegations in conservative media outlets -- and echoed by Trump and some Republicans -- that the process had been recently changed to allow complaints based on second-hand information.

Inspector General Michael Atkinson said in a statement that the whistle-blower followed correct procedures in submitting forms to lodge his or her complaint.

“The Disclosure of Urgent Concern form the complainant submitted on Aug. 12, 2019, is the same form the ICIG has had in place since May 24, 2018,” Atkinson said in the statement. References to first-hand knowledge on previous versions of the whistle-blower forms were removed because they “could be read – incorrectly – as suggesting that whistle-blowers must possess first-hand information in order to file an urgent concern complaint with the congressional intelligence committees.”

Still, in this matter, Atkinson added, “the whistle-blower stated on the form that he or she possessed both first-hand and other information.”

Grassley also dismissed complaints that the whistle-blower didn’t have direct knowledge.

“No one should be making judgments or pronouncements without hearing from the whistle-blower first and carefully following up on the facts,” Grassley said. “When it comes to whether someone qualifies as a whistle-blower, the distinctions being drawn between first- and second-hand knowledge aren’t legal ones.”

Samuel Everett Dewey, a former congressional lawyer who led investigations for House and Senate committees said that even if most people take the view that the whistle-blower has legitimate protections under the law -- questions remain over safeguards for people who spoke to him or her.

“Did the people who had this information follow the whistle-blower law? Did they have clearance to share the information? It’s one thing if you have the information first-hand,” he said. “But you should not be telling a friend about it who does not have a need to know. Shouldn’t you be filing your own whistle-blower complaint?”

Dewey and Eddington said they expect that congressional investigators will try to talk to each and every one of the whistle-blower’s sources, to get the information the whistle-blower purports to have, first-hand -- even if the memo of the Trump’s telephone call with the Ukraine president did mostly bear out how the whistle-blower described it.

There also may be a long court battle ahead if the White House invokes executive privilege to prevent testimony from officials who work in the Executive Office of the President.

“That’s when things will get really interesting,” says Eddington. And with this deeper investigation and potential long legal battles ahead, it unlikely the whistle blower’s own identity can be kept under wraps.

“This is of course a unique case,” said Eddington. “Usually, the allegation is aimed at people inside the whistle-blower’s own organization. In this case, the allegations are aimed at the president of the United States.”

Based on that, he said, “Unless this person is under actual official cover -- and no claim to that effect has surfaced so far -- I think it will be impossible for this person to remain anonymous.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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