Trump drew the attention of his 68 million Twitter followers to a tweet by his reelection campaign’s “war room” that linked to an article by the conservative Washington Examiner news website. The article, published on 3 December, has the name of the alleged whistleblower in its headline.
The president’s retweet quickly drew sharp criticism. Amy Siskind, president of The New Agenda, a nonpartisan advocacy organisation, posted on Friday: “This is not acceptable behavior from the so-called leader of our country, and he must be called to task for it!”
The whistleblower is reportedly a CIA analyst . They filed an anonymous complaint in August alleging Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce an investigation into a political rival – a violation of laws against seeking foreign help in US elections.
The nine-page memo was based on secondary sources, but the whistleblower’s colleagues in the intelligence and diplomatic communities corroborated and fleshed out the account in closed door and public hearings. This culminated in last week’s House of Representatives vote to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, setting the stage for a Senate trial in the coming weeks.
With so much evidence on the record, Democrats have largely moved on from the whistleblower, who has become something of a rightwing obsession. Their alleged name and photograph have been circulating in conservative media for months. Despite whistleblower protection laws, they have to be driven to work by security detail to protect their safety.
The president was following in the footsteps of his own son, Donald Trump Jr, who last month tweeted an article that contained the name and was then grilled about it on the TV talk show The View. Trump Jr claimed he was a “private citizen” sharing information on social media. The show’s hosts argued this was disingenuous considering that he is the president’s son.
Yet for all his sense of raw grievance and righteous indignation over impeachment, Trump himself had been showing uncharacteristic restraint. Last month the Guardian asked him if he was thinking about tweeting out the name of the whistleblower.
The president replied: “Well, I’ll tell you what. There have been stories written about a certain individual – a male – and they say he’s the whistleblower.”
Trump went on to claim, without evidence, that the whistleblower is linked to John Brennan, the former director of the CIA, and Susan Rice, the ex-national security adviser. “If he’s the whistleblower, he has no credibility because he’s a Brennan guy, he’s a Susan Rice guy, he’s an Obama guy, and he hates Trump, and he’s a radical. Now, maybe it’s not him. But if it’s him, you guys ought to release the information.”
Trump has made several more appeals for the media to out the whistleblower, amplified by Republican allies in in Congress, who allege the person is a Democrat pursuing a vendetta. At a Trump rally in Kentucky, Senator Rand Paul urged reporters: “Do your job and print his name!” The president applauded.
Trump himself has never come closer to doing it himself than Thursday’s retweet. The Daily Beast website reported: “Several people close to the president, such as Ivanka Trump and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, had privately cautioned him against saying or posting the name in public, arguing it would be counterproductive and unnecessary.”
Legal experts disagree on whether identifying a whistleblower is a crime. Some argue the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 forbids retaliation against an employee for blowing the whistle on perceived wrongdoing but does not prevent a president or member of Congress from identifying a whistleblower.
But Robert Litt, former general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told National Public Radio last month: “Anybody who is thinking about outing the whistleblower has to take into account the possibility that if something happens to the whistleblower, there would be some civil liability for causing that to happen. And while disclosing the identity of the whistleblower isn’t necessarily unlawful, creating a hostile work environment might be viewed as retaliation.”
With few public engagements, Trump, based at his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, has spent the Christmas period furiously tweeting and retweeting false claims and conspiracy theories related to Ukraine and impeachment.