President Trump is testing a new counterattack against the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, and his Republican allies are already on board with it: The whistleblower, they say, is “not a whistleblower.”
But Democrats on the Hill don’t seem to be sweating it. Probably because it’s not true.
Trump tweeted his new line of defense on Friday morning, and it goes like this: Because the whistleblower was not a firsthand witness to Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he or she is not a credible arbiter of the information.
“He's not a whistleblower,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said Thursday. “I mean, we have to stipulate that a whistleblower has firsthand knowledge and he did not have firsthand knowledge. It was hearsay.”
The message builds on one of the talking points the White House accidentally sent to House Democratic offices on Wednesday: “The real scandal here is that leaks about a second-hand account of the President’s confidential phone call with a foreign leader triggered a media frenzy of false accusations against the President and forced the President to release the transcript.”
In their complaint, the whistleblower, reportedly a CIA agent temporarily detailed to the White House, makes a point to acknowledge that they didn’t witness the events firsthand. Instead, the complaint relays information that was gathered from a handful of officials who did have firsthand knowledge.
The GOP is seizing on that, Democrats say, in an effort to cast doubt on the entire process and put distance between the whistleblower and the president’s alleged misconduct.
It doesn’t change what's in the rough transcript of the call, or the fact that the Intelligence Community Inspector General found credible the whistleblower’s concerns that the president’s team was hiding call transcripts to protect the president. But the messaging campaign could drag out and obfuscate the investigation, morphing what some Democrats see as an open-and-shut case into something longer and muddier.
“Whistleblowers, to me, are, 'I saw something, here's what I saw,' rather than, you know, writing a treatise about concerns I have,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally, said on Thursday. “So I want to find out: Who was the person that went to the whistleblower? And why did they pick that person? And what did they talk about? Because this was a fairly sophisticated effort to write in narrative rather than blow a whistle.”
Trump and his allies have also begun to raise questions about whether lawful whistleblower protections should apply to this person, should he or she choose to eventually come forward. Nowhere was that more evident that in a recording of a closed-door meeting in which Trump mused about potentially executing spies.
“I want to make sure this is a legitimate use of the whistleblower protections,” Graham said Thursday.
House Democrats say they aren’t worried about these talking points. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), the vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said there is no requirement that a whistleblower witness misconduct firsthand.
“It's ridiculous. I mean, the whole point of a whistleblower is you provide information about misconduct in the government,” she said. “I am not a person who likes to go looking for conspiracies under every rock, but here we have a pattern of behavior by this administration by the people who are enabling this president to do unlawful things to really subvert the constitution for his personal profit.”
She appears to be right. According to guidance from the Director of National Intelligence, a whistleblower can be someone with a secondhand account. The document even lays out a specific hypothetical scenario.
“Denise tells her coworker, Adam, she just completed a new classified report for their supervisor, Mr. Snyder. Denise also confides to Adam that Mr. Snyder deliberately revised portions of her analysis with false information to mislead leadership. Adam is surprised, but Denise says Mr. Snyder has done this with a previous classified report as well,” according to the guidance, entitled “Protecting Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information.”
“Because Adam has good reason to believe that misconduct is occurring in his work unit, he is required to report this misconduct,” the document continues.
But Democrats are worried that Trump could spook the whistleblower, or the people who relayed information to the whistleblower, from coming forward.
“I'm just I'm concerned that the president or his people are going to get to this person, potentially even retaliate against them, even before they come and speak to us,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, (D-Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “We need to make sure that he or she has a chance to speak to us.”
Some Democrats said Trump's response to the allegations should become part of the investigation, too. By targeting the whistleblower, Trump’s just digging one more hole for himself, said Rep. Val Demmings (D-Fla.), who sits on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
“This president probably does not have a clue about the whistleblower program and the protections that come along with that program,” she said. “That's just another area that I think deserves attention.”
Cover: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) talks with reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Photo by Tom William/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)