President Trump and his allies say there’s a gaping hole in the middle of the biggest news story in years: the name of the federal whistleblower who sparked the impeachment inquiry that now threatens Trump’s presidency.
They’ve called on news organizations to reveal the name of the CIA officer who first raised concerns about Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine. Yet despite apparent knowledge of the individual’s identity among people in Washington, his name hasn’t been widely reported.
One online publication, Real Clear Investigations, offered a lengthy, if unconfirmed, account about the whistleblower’s identity last week. But its reporting was largely ignored. Outside of a few conservative news sources such as RedState.com and Breitbart and personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, the story didn’t get much traction.
The answer appears to lie in several factors: concerns that revealing the name could jeopardize the whistleblower’s safety; legal questions about whether the whistleblower’s identity is protected by federal law; and potential adverse public reaction to such a disclosure. There’s also a question about whether the person identified in news accounts and bandied about the Internet so far actually is the whistleblower.
Trump has repeatedly said he deserves to know the identity of his accuser. His allies have made similar calls; at a Trump reelection rally in Kentucky Monday night, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) demanded the news media disclose it. “Do your job and print his name,” he said.
Some in the media say the whistleblower’s identity is less newsworthy now that multiple federal officials have corroborated elements of his or her complaint that Trump allegedly strong-armed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a July phone call, insisting that his government investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a Democratic rival, and his son, Hunter.
“I’m not convinced his identity is important at this point, or at least important enough to put him at any risk, or to unmask someone who doesn’t want to be identified,” said Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times. “Pretty much everything has now been discussed or confirmed on the record, multiple times, by others in the administration. So I’m not sure I see the point of unmasking someone who wants to remain anonymous.”
Both Baquet and AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said the intelligence community connection was an important part of the story because — at least at that point several weeks ago — readers had very little information by which to assess the value or veracity of the whistleblower’s complaint.
Easton said Tuesday that the AP has continued to keep the name under wraps because “AP typically refrains from identifying whistleblowers.” She did not explain why.
Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said The Post wasn’t naming an individual because it “has long respected the right of whistleblowers to report wrongdoing in confidence, which protects them against retaliation.”
She added, “We also withhold identities or other facts when we believe that publication would put an individual at risk. Both of those considerations apply in this case.”
Other news organizations didn’t respond to requests for comment, or were terse in reply. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News declined to explain their approach. NBC News said it wasn’t naming the individual “until or unless they identify themselves publicly.” It also did not say why.
CNN had no response.
On Monday, Fox News host Sean Hannity suggested on his program that he knew the name of the whistleblower but was withholding it because of alleged legal threats. “I actually have multiple confirmations of who the whistleblower is,” he said on the air. “But you know what? I’ll play the game for a little bit, and I’ll take the lawyers’ threats that they’re going to sue me.” Such a lawsuit, he said, “wouldn’t go anywhere.”
Reporters frequently withhold names of sources. They also don’t reveal the names of victims of certain crimes, such as rape. But neither of those circumstances apply to a whistleblower.
The mainstream media’s silence is puzzling to Tom Kuntz, the editor of Real Clear Investigations (RCI), which published its whistleblower investigation last week.
“The silence has been deafening,” he said. “It’s almost like there’s a code of omerta [the Mafia vow of silence] about what media organizations can report. . . . There’s a herd mentality and a reluctance to cut against the grain.”
RCI is an offshoot of Real Clear Media, a digital company best known for Real Clear Politics, a site that aggregates a wide spectrum of political reporting and commentary and produces original work. RCI is funded by a nonprofit foundation associated with the for-profit company.
According to its most recent IRS filing, the foundation is in turn funded by foundations associated with conservative philanthropy. Among others is the Ed Uihlein Foundation, a longtime donor to conservative causes, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, which has funded an array of think tanks and organizations headed by people close to Trump’s campaign and transition committee. The Scaife Foundation has been a leading funder of the climate-change counter movement.
Kuntz says journalists should identify newsworthy sources whenever they can, so that readers or viewers can judge their credibility for themselves. In the case of someone asserting that a crime had been committed, he argued that it’s also a question of fairness and due process. That is, Trump should be able to face his accuser, as Trump himself has argued.
However, the whistleblower’s attorney, Mark Zaid, has said that revealing the whistleblower’s name could subject him to physical or professional reprisals and could discourage future whistleblowers from coming forward. Zaid has said he would never confirm or deny the identity of his client.
But both Kuntz and Baquet disputed the notion, advanced by Hannity, that a news organization would face legal consequences by publishing the name.
In nearly a week since publishing its story, RCI hasn’t received any legal threats, Kuntz said. Baquet said he didn’t foresee any such penalty, either, “especially if there was a truly compelling journalistic reason” for disclosing the name.