As the impeachment inquiry moves out from closed doors and into public view, Republicans have confirmed what they’ve been hinting at for weeks: that their campaign to undermine Democrats’ case to impeach President Trump will center on outing and interrogating the anonymous whistleblower whose account launched the inquiry in the first place.
On Thursday, House Democrats formally extended to their GOP counterparts the chance to request witnesses for the open hearings that will take place in the month of November. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a leader of the GOP’s counter-impeachment push, responded by telling reporters that Republicans would request to subpoena testimony from the whistleblower—in public.
The spectacle that would be created by the anonymous whistleblower dramatically revealing their identity as part of a historic impeachment probe is, unfortunately for the GOP, exceedingly unlikely to happen. Under impeachment rules passed last month, House Democrats retain the power to veto any witness requests from the minority, and the inquiry’s leader, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), has said the whistleblower has the right to remain anonymous and shouldn’t be subject to “vicious attacks” from Trump and his allies.
Those Democratic lawmakers involved in the inquiry view the GOP’s relentless focus on the whistleblower not only as wrong-headed but unnecessary.
“I mean, the whistleblower has a right to anonymity, and everything that's been alleged has proved through other witnesses,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), an Intelligence Committee member.
“I look at the whistleblower like someone who pulled a fire alarm, and first responders show up, and they see flames, smoke, a burning building, an arsonist holding the gasoline can with matches,” said Swalwell. “Don't really need to know who pulled the fire alarm.”
Democrats also point to the fact that not so long ago, some of the same Republicans now agitating to expose the identity of the person who first raised concerns about Trump’s actions in Ukraine previously touted the need to protect whistleblowers—particularly when it benefitted the investigations they were conducting.
Just two years ago, for example, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chaired the House Intelligence Committee that was investigating Russian election interference in the 2016 election. At a press conference in March 2017 announcing that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had agreed to testify, Nunes indicated that those who came forward with information for the investigation would be protected no matter what.
“We don't talk about sources at this committee,” said Nunes. “We want more people to come forward. The good thing is that we have continued to have people come forward, voluntarily, to this committee and we want to continue that and I will tell you that that will not happen if we tell you who our sources are and people that come to the committee.”
Nunes also encouraged whistleblowers to come forward “whether it's top secret or not. Or anyone who has read their name in any press article, they're welcome to come forward and be interviewed.”
And before the Russia investigation, Nunes lamented that whistleblower protections weren’t strong enough to ward off intimidation, which made officials worried that would-be whistleblowers would follow the path of Edward Snowden—the former government contractor who in 2013 leaked to the public a trove of data exposing government surveillance—rather than route their concerns through the congressional committees.
“There is a systemic problem with the whistle-blower process,” Nunes told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake. “There is no easy way for them to come forward that doesn't jeopardize their careers, across the whole defense and intelligence community enterprise.”
Nunes’ office did not respond to a request for comment. On Wednesday night, however, he went on Fox News to lay out the case for why the Trump whistleblower needed to be outed.
Other Republicans calling for the whistleblower’s testimony have, in the past, championed the role of whistleblowers in exposing waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government. In 2017, Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA)—who has said the Ukraine whistleblower must come forward publicly—tweeted his praise of legislation aimed at protecting federal government whistleblowers from retaliation. A cosponsor of the bill, titled the “Thoroughly Investigating Retaliation Against Whistleblowers Act,” was Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leading defender of Trump in the impeachment inquiry.
But since the nature of the anonymous whistleblower’s complaint—which first described the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — was made public, Republican defenders of the president have eagerly questioned the whistleblower’s motives and background and taunted the person for not “accusing” the president in public view.
And in recent days, Republicans have supercharged their attempts to expose the whistleblower’s identity, with figures like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) openly threatening to name the person himself.
GOP lawmakers involved in the inquiry say the whistleblower needs to answer questions about their motivations, as well as the process they followed in relaying their concerns to Capitol Hill. In particular, they have focused on Schiff’s admission that the whistleblower anonymously contacted the Intelligence Committee first for guidance on how to submit their complaint.
“Remember what Adam Schiff said, on September 29, that we would all get a chance to hear from the actual whistleblower?” asked Jordan recently. “Now he’s changed his tune. And I think the question is, why he changed his tune… Because we found out his staff talked to him.”
But intelligence community officials, including the acting intelligence director Joseph Maguire, have testified that the whistleblower followed the law and the proper steps in reporting their complaint.
The attorney for the whistleblower, Mark Zaid, has also said that his client would be willing to answer written questions directly from GOP lawmakers, without including Schiff. But Trump and his allies on the Hill have made clear that would not be enough for them.
Not all GOP lawmakers are gung ho on the whistleblower testifying in public, however. Last week, Meadows said he would “love for that whistleblower to be able to show the American people—or more importantly, maybe in private, just a couple of people—why he believes or she believes their complaint is accurate.”
Impeachment investigators announced on Wednesday that their first witnesses for open hearings will include Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador in Kyiv who was forced out of her post, and George Kent, a top State Department official for Europe.
Swalwell told The Daily Beast that Schiff should not add the whistleblower to any testimony list—“unless the whistleblower would add relevant evidence that we've not heard yet.”