For the Republicans, though, the goal is less about confirming the whistleblower’s facts than questioning the CIA official’s motives, stoking Democratic outrage and spreading “deep state” conspiracy theories.
Trump has tweeted about the anonymous bureaucrat more than 50 times, including on Thursday when he asked: “Where’s the Fake Whistleblower?”
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) went one step further, naming the person that he and multiple conservative news sites believe to be the author of the August complaint.
“I refuse to cower before the authoritarian intimidation campaign,” Bishop wrote. “He’s not a bona fide whistleblower.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) then followed, naming the official in a radio interview and noting that the person was involved in setting Ukraine policy when Vice President Joe Biden was traveling frequently to Kyiv.
“I think he’s a material witness who needs to be brought in,” Paul said.
The Republicans in the hearing room on Wednesday and those tweeting from the sidelines, as well as the Oval Office, shared the same desired end state — a strategy ideally suited to America’s hyperpartisan moment. They wanted to foster a divisive and polarizing environment that would force Republicans in Congress and across the country to pick a side.
To that end, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) railed about “star chambers,” “the corrupt media” and a “cultlike atmosphere.” And he cast the whistleblower as someone with a “bias against President Trump” who had colluded with the Democrats before filing a complaint. “Republicans can’t get a full account of these contacts because Democrats broke their promise to have the whistleblower testify to this committee,” he said.
Although the whistleblower spoke briefly with someone on the staff of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), there’s no evidence to suggest the CIA official received help from the Democrats in drafting the complaint filed with the inspector general. The whistleblower also self-disclosed having registered as a Democrat when the complaint was submitted, officials said.
“Because the Republicans are uncoordinated and scrambling, all they have right now is the carnival barker strategy, where they throw up as many distractions as possible,” said Julian Epstein, the counsel to the House Judiciary Committee Democrats during the Clinton impeachment. “In 1998, we had carnival barkers, too. They became dopamine for the base and acted as distractions from the story the other side was trying to tell.”
But Epstein warned that the carnival barker’s impact would probably be fleeting even in the current era of shorter attention spans, fragmented media and polarized politics. “You can’t rely on them if you’re worried about the middle third of the country, and impeachment is always about the middle third of the country,” he said.
The Democrats seemed intent on draining any emotion or excessive opprobrium from the proceedings. Schiff offered a relatively dry recitation of the facts, which he noted “are not seriously contested.”
At issue is whether Trump withheld an Oval Office meeting and $391 million in military aid from Ukraine in an effort to strong-arm its new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into digging up dirt on Trump’s political rivals.
Schiff promised to answer the impeachment inquiry’s questions without “rancor if we can” and without disclosing the whistleblower’s identity.
Republicans have been flirting with naming the whistleblower for weeks now. Sean Hannity, a Fox News host and frequent Trump adviser, said in early November that he knew the whistleblower’s name but wasn’t ready to reveal it.
“I will play the game for a little bit and I will take the lawyer’s threats that they’re going to sue me. It wouldn’t go anywhere,” he said.
Andrew Bakaj, who represents the whistleblower, recently warned Trump that his rhetoric was placing the whistleblower in “physical danger” and that the president was placing himself in “legal and ethical peril.”
The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. similarly tweeted what he believed to be the whistleblower’s name and defended his decision in an acrimonious appearance on “The View.”
“I literally quote-tweeted an article that had the guy’s name in the title of the article,” Trump Jr. said.
The focus on the whistleblower’s motives, rather than the facts uncovered as a result of the person’s complaint, is a classic disinformation tactic, said Timothy Naftali, co-author of “Impeachment: An American History.”
“They want to destroy the credibility of the person to destroy the credibility of the information he’s providing,” Naftali said.
A similar motive led Trump to brand the acting ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, two key witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, as “never Trumpers,” even though Taylor was serving as a political appointee and Vindman was serving as a nonpartisan military officer.
The intense effort to make the whistleblower and his complaint the centerpiece of the Republican defense is a new tactic, said Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics at Middlebury College and author of “Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump.”
“When a CIA whistleblower launched the Benghazi investigation, Democrats did not attack the whistleblower, nor did members of the administration refuse to testify before Congress,” she said. “We are in uncharted territory.”
In the Republican-led probe into the death of four Americans in Libya — including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens — former secretary of state Hillary Clinton testified for 11 hours. By contrast, the White House has ordered top officials with direct knowledge of the president’s actions on Ukraine, such as former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, not to testify.
“The Republicans have gone nuclear and are willing to blow up American constitutional democracy to win,” Stanger said. “If they succeed, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.”
In the concluding moments of Wednesday’s hearing, the Republicans asked to subpoena the whistleblower’s testimony before the impeachment panel and Schiff put the matter up for a vote.
The Democratic majority on the committee rejected the request.
But Bishop, the first Republican lawmaker to offer up a name for the whistleblower, didn’t seem perturbed. He tweeted on Thursday that he was certain that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, would subpoena the official when impeachment moved to the Republican-