The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s whistleblower attacks set a dangerous precedent

President Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday.
President Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

THE FACTS of the Ukraine scandal are clear and damning, so it is not surprising that President Trump and his minions search desperately for scapegoats and distraction. In many instances, they just look foolish. But one particular obsession — to name and attack “the whistleblower” — is a grave threat to the integrity of the government.

Despite warnings that disclosing the whistleblower’s identity might expose him or her to harm, right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart have printed the name of a federal employee who may be the whistleblower. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have threatened to call the whistleblower as a witness in the panel’s impeachment inquiry. The president even retweeted an article with the printed name. Mr. Trump insists he must be allowed to “meet my accuser,” as in a criminal trial. But the whistleblower is more like a confidential informant who tips off the authorities before an arrest or a trial. Every substantive allegation in the whistleblower’s account has been confirmed, on the record, by witnesses whose identities are known to Mr. Trump and the world. The president’s lawyers will have the opportunity to challenge the evidence if and when he is tried in the Senate.

Given how he has slandered other witnesses, there is little doubt what Mr. Trump really wants: a target. Conservative outlets have already attempted to link the alleged whistleblower to their long-running conspiracy theories about the Obama administration and the “deep state.” Obnoxious radio provocateur Rush Limbaugh has mocked the supposed whistleblower’s appearance. For his part, Mr. Trump has resorted to attacking the whistleblower’s lawyer, Mark S. Zaid, on the basis of tweets the lawyer wrote in 2017. The president would no doubt like to expose the whistleblower so the conversation can turn to old tweets and conspiracy allegations rather than the facts.

Those facts are: An unnamed whistleblower wrote a memo recounting a phone call Mr. Trump held with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the president pressed Mr. Zelensky to launch investigations designed to help Mr. Trump politically. That initial tip resulted in the release of huge amounts of corroborating evidence, including a rough transcript of the call released by the White House itself. As witness after witness has described the months-long pressure campaign on Ukraine to serve the president’s political interests, the whistleblower’s account has become superfluous. At this point, the House and Senate need not rely on a word the whistleblower wrote to judge Mr. Trump’s actions. Permanently upending the whistleblower’s life, as the president and his allies want, would serve no purpose beyond distraction and revenge.

And it would set a dangerous precedent. When accountability fails or politicians confuse their own interests with the public’s, there must be a way for officials to raise the alarm without fear of retaliation. Hence the long-standing, bipartisan agreement that whistleblowers should be given formal and informal protections. Now that a president is being called out for egregious behavior and calling his party to rally to him, that consensus is in danger. The next time a patriotic civil servant witnesses misconduct, the craven campaign against today’s whistleblower may affect whether that misconduct is reported. If it is not, the public will be poorer for it.

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