But Paul, speaking at a rally focused on Trump and on Gov. Matt Bevin (R), wanted to highlight Trump’s allegations of corruption against former vice president Joe Biden. So Paul declared that Biden’s son Hunter Biden having earned $50,000 a month sitting on the board of a Ukrainian energy company was “the definition of corruption” and that the younger Biden got the position “only because of his family connections.” He’s probably not wrong on the latter point, but he might want to be more judicious about leveling corruption allegations against those who leverage family connections for power and money.
Biden wasn’t Paul’s focus, though. Instead, Kentucky’s junior senator wanted to talk about the whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine indirectly spurred the current impeachment inquiry in the House. That inquiry quickly generated robust evidence that Trump had leveraged his position and, it seems, American aid to get Ukraine to announce new investigations into the Bidens and an arcane component of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Multiple current and former Trump administration officials have presented evidence that suggests Trump and his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani were specifically focused on making politically useful investigations public.
“We also now know the name of the whistleblower,” Paul said to the crowd. “The whistleblower needs to come before Congress as a material witness because he worked for Joe Biden at the same time Hunter Biden was getting money from corrupt oligarchs. I say tonight to the media: Do your job and print his name."
“Do your job!” the crowd chanted.
“And I say this to my fellow colleagues in Congress to every Republican in Washington,” Paul continued, “step up and subpoena Hunter Biden and subpoena the whistleblower."
There's an interesting contrast between Paul's claim that we “know the name of the whistleblower” and his exhortation that the media “do its job” and identify that person. He was literally speaking into a microphone at a rally being covered in the media; why not just say the name himself?
The answer, of course, is that intelligence community whistleblowers, including the individual who reported Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, are protected — to some extent — from both public identification and retribution. The reason for that is obvious: Whistleblowing would be broadly discouraged if those reporting improper behavior could immediately be identified, attacked or punished. Paul wants the whistleblower to be publicly identified, but he doesn’t want to be the one to do it.
At least not in that venue. Last week, he did share an article on Twitter that purports to have identified the whistleblower. That article was written by Paul Sperry, a staunchly conservative author who at one point served as the Washington bureau chief for WorldNetDaily, a conspiracy-theory-heavy website infamous for its focus on Barack Obama’s birthplace. Sperry is also the author of “Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington.”
It’s presumably Sperry’s article to which Paul was referring in claiming that the whistleblower’s name was known. It may also be simply a name that he’s heard from Republicans on Capitol Hill; as The Post has reported, Paul’s colleagues have focused on the identity of the whistleblower during questioning of witnesses in the impeachment inquiry. Officials who spoke with The Post described the questioning as an effort to “dredge up any information they can” about the whistleblower.
To an outside observer familiar with the progress of the Ukraine scandal, this seems odd. The whistleblower report documented a number of interactions (including the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky) that have been reinforced and fleshed out in testimony from other witnesses.
It’s an observation that’s trite by now, but it’s a useful one: The whistleblower was the guy who called 911, leading investigators to uncover new evidence and new witnesses to build a case against a suspect. On “Law & Order,” the person who discovers the body (someone generally identified in the credits as something like “man in Park”) is not usually a critical part of the district attorney’s investigation. In this case, even if the whistleblower were Joe Biden himself, it’s not clear how that would affect the evidence that has since emerged.
Unless, of course, your goal isn't to evaluate the evidence but, instead, to identify a scapegoat.
Trump himself has repeatedly focused on the whistleblower on Twitter. Trump has called the whistleblower’s claims false and biased and demanded the person’s testimony, much as Paul did on Monday. (Echoing Trump’s arguments while standing next to him was no doubt part of Paul’s motivation.) But Trump’s interest isn’t really in the whistleblower himself. Trump’s interest is in having someone he can point to as biased and false.
We've seen this script before. As the Russia probe moved forward, Trump and his allies seized upon two overlapping narratives to argue that the investigation was unfair in its targeting of the president. One was that the investigation included an improperly obtained warrant against a former Trump campaign staffer, a claim that is neither substantiated nor a definitive example of investigators trying to kneecap Trump's campaign. The other narrative was that the investigation overall was started by a biased FBI agent named Peter Strzok with the intent to take Trump down.
Strzok was clearly not a fan of Trump, as text messages between him and his colleague (and romantic partner) Lisa Page make clear. But there's no solid evidence that the Russia probe suffered from any improper bias at its origin. (Part of what Trump wanted from Ukraine was a suggestion that it had.) That Strzok never took any action before the election to impede Trump's victory is, by itself, difficult to reconcile with Trump's presentation of Strzok's role.
Trump and his allies have nonetheless focused on Strzok as a central figure in a plot to take down his presidency. Trump has tweeted about him dozens of times, calling him “incompetent,” “corrupt,” “biased” and “hate-filled.” Trump has repeatedly exaggerated what the text messages said and amplified sketchy reports highlighting purported malfeasance by the agent.
Strzok has become a shorthand for what Trump allies see as a corruptly initiated investigation. Say “Strzok” on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, and every person watching knows not only whom you’re referring to but what you’re implying. Strzok’s fiery testimony on Capitol Hill last year in response to questions about the investigation certainly heightened the friction between himself and Trump’s core supporters. But even without that, he was a useful proxy: a way to distill purported bias into one person, even as evidence mounted that an investigation of Russian interference was warranted and that people working for Trump’s campaign had interacted with Russian agents.
That’s what Trump and Paul want now. They want that one person, the person who can become the embodiment of a new effort to target the president. They can certainly use the whistleblower’s ongoing anonymity as a cudgel — Why are the Democrats hiding him? But it’s useful over the longer term to have a person whose name can become the easy way to wave away questions about what happened in Ukraine. Oh, someone testified that Trump suggested a quid pro quo on aid to Ukraine? Well, apparently you didn’t know that Joe Whistleblower was biased against Trump in the first place. Done and done.
It’s just a way for Trump to provide the smallest semblance of reasonable doubt for his base. Trump has mastered this, creating just enough skepticism of news reports for his base to ignore the broader negative implications of what is alleged. It never takes much, and it’s often not an argument that really makes much sense — he attacked the late Arizona senator John McCain as not being a hero because he was mad about how McCain treated veterans? — but he always finds something that gives his base the cover to keep standing with him.
For the whistleblower, these machinations are something much more dangerous. The president identifying the whistleblower publicly would put this person at considerable risk, as a letter released by the whistleblower’s attorney in the wake of the Sperry report made clear. Strzok sued the FBI after he was fired last year, arguing that “the campaign to publicly vilify” him led to “frequent incidents of public and online harassment and threats of violence to Strzok and his family.” The whistleblower could certainly expect the same fate.
It now seems almost inevitable that someone alleged to be whistleblower will be identified publicly on some more significant platform than the Sperry article, perhaps by Trump himself. (It’s important to note that there has been no reported confirmation of the whistleblower’s identity; it’s illegal for the inspector general who received the report to offer such confirmation.)
The best that the whistleblower can hope for, we might assume, is that some other target crosses Trump’s radar before that happens — some other thing that can be the target of flak as Trump tries to defuse the threat posed to his presidency by the impeachment inquiry.
There’s never not a scapegoat. The best you can hope is that you’re not it.