Many Republicans and conservative media are desperate for revenge as President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial comes to a close, and one target for retribution looms large in their minds: the still officially unidentified whistleblower.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on Tuesday continued his crusade against the whistleblower who sparked the Ukraine scandal at the heart of the impeachment. Paul read aloud a question on the Senate floor that included the name of the person some claim is the whistleblower, and he displayed a poster showing the name as well. Previously, when Paul had tried to ask a written question that included the name earlier in the trial, Chief Justice John Roberts refused to read the name on principle.
The whistleblower’s identity has not been confirmed, and Paul tried to use this as a defense against bringing up the name.
“By not allowing the question, he’s sort of confirming to the public who it is,” Paul said of the chief justice. “I have no idea who it is.”
But this was an obvious smokescreen. Paul and others are obsessed with the alleged name of the whistleblower precisely because they think it’s the whistleblower, and they’re committed to turning the tables of Trump’s impeachment.
The whole strategy, though, is nonsensical. The right-wing obsession with the whistleblower, echoed by the likes of Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and The Federalist’s Mollie Hemmingway, rests on the idea that the person’s identity is somehow relevant to the charges against the president. But this idea is baseless.
Paul floated the conspiracy theory on Tuesday that the individual who has been named as the whistleblower, along with members of the Democratic staff in the House and others on the National Security Council, “gamed the system knowing that they would get [whistleblower] protections, in order to bring down the president.” He added: “We should know about that.”
This idea is based on vague and dubious reporting from RealClearInvestigations alleging that the whistleblower and others were overheard talking about getting rid of the president early in Trump’s first term.
It’s far from clear that this reporting is true or being represented accurately. A recent report from The Daily Beast found that RealClear Media, the company behind RealClearInvestigations, had been “secretly running a Facebook page filled with far-right memes and Islamophobic smears.”
But even if the allegations were true — even if the whistleblower was part of a partisan plot hoping to find a way to impeach the president — it still would be completely irrelevant to the impeachment proceedings. If the person broke the law in some way to reach that end, some kind of punishment might be warranted, but it would still have nothing to do whatsoever with whether Trump should be removed from office.
In the end, the whistleblower’s account of the Ukraine scandal was largely accurate. What’s more, it was corroborated by multiple forms of evidence, including a White House call record, witness testimony, and communications records. Because of the House Intelligence Committee’s thorough investigation, Democrats didn’t need to rely on the whistleblower’s word at all to make the case against Trump. So the whistleblower’s motivations and personal credibility are no longer relevant — all that matters is the strength of the case against the president.
Some right-wing critics of the whistleblower have said that the president should have the right to face his accuser. But since the whistleblower’s testimony wasn’t a part of the case against the president, there’s no meaningful sense in which the whistleblower is the president’s accuser. To make an analogy to a criminal case, the whistleblower is more like a 9-1-1 caller who alerts the police to the sounds of gunshots; that person may never be asked to testify against the person who ends up charged in the shooting, and the accused would have no reason or grounds to confront the tipster.
Republicans might be understandably disconcerted by the idea that there were people in the administration waiting for the president to screw up badly enough that he could be impeached. If Trump knew about such people on his staff — at least before they used the whistleblower procedures — he would probably reasonably want to fire them. But there’s no clear line between this kind of plotting (and, to be clear, no one has convincingly shown this occurred) and vigilant public servants who simply want the government to function well. And as long as there’s no serious wrongdoing or lawbreaking alleged, it’s not clear why the motivations of the whistleblower are relevant at all, given that the complaint was accurate. Even if the complaint had been seriously mistaken, but still led to the discovery of impeachable offenses, the discrepancies would be no defense of the president.
So why are people like Sen. Paul, who has previously won an award from whistleblower advocates, so committed to outing the person? Paul claims that his desire to out the person is not retribution, but given the whistleblower’s desire for anonymity, it clearly is.
There are several reasons. First, it gives Republicans something to talk about other than the president’s obvious guilt. Second, it plays into the conservative victimhood narrative beloved by Republicans. Third, it will undoubtedly please Trump. And fourth — most dangerously — it discourages other whistleblowers from coming forward with damaging information about the president for fear of the same kind of treatment. That could help Republicans avoid the uncomfortable prospect of having to cover up for the president once again.
Another explanation, which sort of combines those I just outlined, may be that Republicans like Paul are just genuinely angry, and they’re taking it out on the whistleblower (as well as Rep. Adam Schiff when they get the chance). Even though nothing they have said about the whistleblower has any bearing on the charges against the president, and even though their accusations of wrongdoing don’t make any sense, they need somewhere to aim their fury. They’re furious because by challenging Trump, they feel the authority and ruling power of the Republican Party — which hangs on despite its unpopularity only because of U.S. institutions are rigged in their favor — are being challenged. And that’s the one thing they cannot accept.