In August, an intelligence analyst filed a whistle-blower complaint alleging that President Donald Trump pressured President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to open an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
That allegation has since been substantiated by independent reporting, a summary of the call released by the White House, and text messages from Trump officials arguing about the ethics of using taxpayer funds for an act of political extortion. Since then, Trump has publicly reiterated his call for both Ukraine and China, an authoritarian nation seeking relief from a Trump-instigated trade war, to investigate Biden.
You wouldn’t know any of this, however, if you simply read Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone column alleging that the person who filed the whistle-blower complaint is “not a real whistleblower.” The allegations, and their subsequent corroboration by the White House’s own documents, are simply not worth explaining. Instead, Taibbi quotes the former CIA analyst Robert Baer as arguing that the whistle-blower is part of a “palace coup against Trump.” Taibbi argues that a “real whistleblower” would have had his life shattered by prosecution or imprisonment, like Thomas Drake or Chelsea Manning. The column makes a strong case that the whistle-blower is not punk enough for Taibbi, but it does not even try to make the case that the individual in question has not exposed serious abuses of power. (Taibbi similarly fails to mention that rules protecting intelligence-community whistle-blowers have been strengthened in recent years, in part to make it so that going public isn’t the only option.)
Taibbi’s column illustrates the strange occasional convergence between Trump sycophants and the anti-anti-Trump left, whose oft-justified critiques of liberals sentimentalizing power can devolve into the reactionary assumption that everything liberals support is worth opposing. There is more bipartisan continuity in many of the terrible things Trump does, especially on foreign policy, than liberals would often like to admit, but the worst thing about Trump’s tax cuts, detention camps, child torture, Muslim bans, and gutting of civil-rights laws is not that these policies make wine moms in Prospect Heights who watch MSNBC feel sad.
Since Trump’s extortion scheme came to light, both pro-Trump and anti-anti-Trump figures have sought to undermine the messenger—a task made more difficult by the fact that the whistle-blower has so far chosen to remain anonymous. But that hasn’t prevented these detractors from raising meaningless process objections or writing fan fiction about motives. That’s in part because what Trump has done—seeking to use his authority as president to pressure foreign countries to criminalize his opponents—so clearly undermines the fundamental concept of free and fair elections that it is impossible to defend on the merits.
In the name of substantiating theories about a deep-state coup, some conservative media outlets have falsely alleged that the whistle-blower requirements were changed, have spread rumors that the whistle-blower is a “disgruntled Obama official,” and have baselessly alleged that Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff wrote the complaint.
All of this, though, is beside the point. Trump’s conduct has been substantiated by his own statements, the White House summary of the call, and the text messages between Trump officials discussing the coercion scheme contemporaneously. There is no need to trust the word of the whistle-blower. As it stands, there’s no question that the individual who filed the complaint was engaged in “the lawful disclosure of information [he or she] reasonably believes evidences wrongdoing to an authorized recipient,” the standard that the intelligence community’s inspector general requires.
What determines whether someone is a whistle-blower is whether the person is engaged in uncovering misconduct from the inside, not whether the government has already punished the person for doing so. It may yet come to that if this whistle-blower’s identity is revealed—Trump has suggested the whistle-blower and the sources on which the whistle-blower drew be executed. An irony is that the whistle-blowers mentioned by Taibbi were attacked for not following proper procedure in revealing their information to the public; attacking the method of disclosure while ignoring the misconduct revealed by that disclosure is typically the approach of those implicated in said misconduct.
It is certainly possible that the whistle-blower has malign motives toward the president. That fact is of public interest, but it’s not even of tertiary importance relative to the president’s abuse of power. It is relevant that W. Mark Felt, also known as Deep Throat, was angry at President Richard Nixon for installing a crony as the head of the FBI, but it is more important that Nixon was guilty. It is relevant that the reporter who exposed the blackface photo in Ralph Northam’s yearbook is a conservative, but it is more important that the photo exists. It is relevant that Edward Snowden fled the United States after revealing that the Obama administration was breaking federal laws against warrantless surveillance, but it is more important that the law was being broken in the first place.
Put simply, whistle-blowers often have political motives, or motives that people can reasonably criticize, disagree with, or find abhorrent. But those motives do not supersede, diminish, or otherwise validate the misconduct they expose. To fixate on those motives at the expense of the misconduct being uncovered is to reward malfeasance.
The exception is where no actual misconduct is revealed; then the motives of the individual coming forward become more significant. But Trump supporters are so bereft of benign explanations for the president’s behavior that they have fallen to mischaracterizing it, pretending it did not occur, or suggesting that the president was acting in jest. Similarly, Taibbi simply doesn’t say what Trump did, or why it would matter in the first place.
Nor does the fact that the whistle-blower is a CIA official negate the complaint. One of the reasons to fear the power of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies is that they could use their considerable authority not to enforce the law or protect Americans from violence, but to manipulate the political process in their favor. Indeed, despite all the rhetoric about “deep state” conspiracies, the most prominent example of such direct interference is the head of the FBI breaking protocol by announcing an investigation of Hillary Clinton while keeping the investigation into Trump secret, in order to avoid a backlash from right-wing officials within the bureau. But corrupt use of national-security authority is the very abuse of power that Trump himself was engaged in—pressuring Ukraine in order to force that nation to kneecap his political opponent. If justified skepticism of intelligence agencies leads you to ignore the very kinds of abuses that make them perilous to democracy, then you’ve missed the point.
The stakes here are existential. You cannot have free speech, due process, or fair elections in a country where the head of state can unilaterally demand investigations of political critics and rivals. It is not a power that any president, from any party, should ever have. Whatever the whistle-blower’s motives, they pale in comparison with the misconduct that’s been uncovered.
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