Democracy depends on whistleblowers like Cassidy Hutchinson — flaws and all
Cassidy Hutchinson (Screen cap / House Select Committee video)
On the last day of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, the prominent Philadelphia socialite Elizabeth Willing Powel supposedly asked Benjamin Franklin whether the fledgling nation's new constitution would create a monarchy or a republic. He famously answered: "A Republic, if you can keep it."

In 2022, Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Mark Meadows, Donald Trump's final White House chief of staff, courageously played an outsized part in keeping it.

Franklin understood the fragility of democracy. Its survival requires the vigilance not only of an educated citizenry, but especially of those who serve in government. Yet the demands of loyalty and the lure of power are seductive countervailing forces. With any institution, whether a corporation or a presidency, rooting out corruption depends upon individuals who choose morality over loyalty.

In an all-too-familiar story, Hutchinson, like many whistleblowers, faced an agonizing dilemma: choosing between her moral convictions and allegiance to her former White House bosses. She understood the price that choosing morality entailed. As she told the House select committee on the Jan. 6 insurrection, "You know, I'd seen this world ruin people's lives…. I'd seen how vicious they can be…. And I was scared of that."

As if the likelihood of retaliation were not enough, the choice between loyalty and moral responsibility often comes with extreme financial pressure. Hutchinson was out of work when the committee subpoenaed her. She lacked funds to pay a lawyer. She risked dramatically limiting her future career prospects if she stepped out of line.

Then there was the social and emotional pressure of parting company with her professional circle, including many of her friends, and being both politically and personally ostracized. Hutchinson initially accepted free representation from "Trump world," as she called it. In preparation for her committee interview, her lawyer, Stefan Passantino, encouraged her to answer "I don't recall," even when she did recall.

She went along with that plan, at least until her conscience rebelled. At a break in her first interview, she told Passantino in a panic that she had claimed not to recollect things she actually remembered perfectly well. Passantino pressed her to stay the course, telling her in so many words that she wouldn't get caught.

In turmoil, Hutchinson reached out to a Republican lawmaker she trusted who told her she had to live with the "mirror test": Will you be able to live with yourself if you just move on or do you have to stand up and tell the truth?

She then found guidance in the history of Watergate's most important whistleblowers, a former aide in the Nixon White House named Alexander Butterfield. In 1974, he exposed the fact that all of Richard Nixon's Oval Office phone calls and meetings had been recorded. Over a weekend, Hutchinson read Butterfield's book about his experience — not once, but three times. Without his truthful testimony, the American public would never have had the smoking gun that ended Nixon's attempted cover-up and conspiracy against democracy.

Courage can be inspirational, even across generations. Hutchinson realized that, like Butterfield, she had to tell the whole truth. She found a new attorney willing to work pro bono and delivered her bombshell testimony before the committee, which changed the nation's perceptions of Donald Trump, perhaps permanently

The difficult choice that Hutchinson faced has a counterpart in the corporate world, where the promise of potential future prestige, power and financial gain, or even pure financial necessity, motivates many witnesses of wrongdoing to remain silent in a spirit of misguided loyalty. Even so, there are important difference between those who work in the private sector and those who serve in government. Public office is a public trust.

Cassidy Hutchinson found guidance in the history of Watergate's most important whistleblowers, the former Nixon White House aide Alexander Butterfield.

Cassidy Hutchinson may not have been a perfect profile in courage. She was initially evasive with the committee. But whistleblowers are not required to be perfect people. In fact, they are "ordinary people under extraordinary pressure," to quote a line delivered by Al Pacino as "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman in the film "The Insider." Pacino continues: "What the hell do you expect — grace and consistency?"

Thanks to Hutchinson and others, we have a crucial window into Trump world, and it's not a pretty picture. But an educated and committed citizenry can work to address it. Just last week thanks in no small part to activists pushing to protect our democracy against future assaults, Congress adopted the Electoral Count Act Reform Act. It closed loopholes in its 1887 predecessor that Trump sought to exploit to overturn the 2020 election.

Regrettably, this Congress did not adopt other important democracy-preserving measures, including the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act. The incoming House majority will certainly not be supportive such reforms. Its leaders will likely be intent on protecting Trump and attacking their political enemies on every front.

But attempts to undermine our republic can be thwarted if those who care about it remain vigilant. Opposing the anti-democratic efforts of House Republicans over the next two years can help "keep the Republic" until 2024. America will then have the opportunity to elect a Congress willing to enact whistleblower protections and other measures to safeguard our freedom.

Cassidy Hutchinson's courage reminds us never to underestimate each citizen's power to effect positive change. We must follow her lead. Democracy depends upon it.