WASHINGTON — Grasping for their best defense of President Trump from accusations that he abused his office, Republicans have been itching to drag the anonymous intelligence-community whistleblower into the political fight.
And they just tried to force a witness in the impeachment inquiry to spill the official’s name — on live national television.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican famous for attempting to sue the operator of a parody Twitter account pretending to be his own cow, got into a feisty back-and-forth on Tuesday over that exact question, ultimately folding before a rebuff from Democratic House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff.
Nunes avoided mentioning any of the factual issues raised by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman during the previous hour of testimony, about how Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden had undermined Ukraine’s bloody conflict with Russia.
Instead, he pressed Vindman to reveal the name of the official who had exposed the White House's pressure campaign, by demanding to know who Vindman spoke to about his concerns over Trump’s July 25 now-notorious phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Nunes dubiously insisted Vindman’s only out was to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination — as if speaking to any other government official with proper security clearance about anxiety that Trump might have abused his office should be considered a crime.
“You can either answer the question or you can plead the Fifth,” Nunes said.
Vindman, who testified wearing an Army service uniform covered in medals, replied he’d only spoken to individuals entitled to receive such information.
“These were properly cleared individuals with a need to know,” Vindman said.
Vindman’s lawyer jumped in and said his client was simply following the committee's own rules, which bar witnesses from mentioning the whistleblower’s name. Schiff agreed.
“These proceedings will not be used to out the whistleblower,” Schiff interjected.
Trump and his allies have railed against the whistleblower, suggesting he was motivated by anti-Trump bias rather than genuine concerns about Trump’s own behavior. Senator Rand Paul has encouraged reporters to print the whistleblower’s name.
As the exchange heated up, Vindman issued Nunes a tight-lipped reprimand about addressing him with his proper military title.
“Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistleblower,” Nunes began.
Vindman shot back crisply: “Ranking member, it's Lt. Col. Vindman, please.”
Cover: Steve Castor, the Republican staff attorney, right, listens as ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes questions Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, as they testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)