The mainstream media has assiduously avoided naming the whistleblower behind the complaint about President Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In doing so, they neglect their duty to inform the public on a momentous matter of state.
Following President Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, an anonymous civil servant, later revealed by The New York Times to be a male CIA employee, filed a complaint expressing urgent concern that “the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” This explosive charge, and by extension the person behind it, inspired House Democrats to vote for an official impeachment inquiry, beginning just the fourth earnest attempt to impeach a president in American history.
Impeachment is a political matter. There is no meaningful legal standard for impeaching the president. High crimes and misdemeanors are what Congress says they are. As a result, each legislator makes two decisions: whether impeachment is justified on the merits, and whether impeachment is politically advantageous. Has the president done what the bill of impeachment claims? Does the politician and his or her party stand to gain or lose electorally thanks to impeachment?
The second question is at least as important as the first, and that’s OK. Hem and haw about civic duty from dawn to dusk. Elected officials are just that — elected. Elections make legislators accountable to voters, which is good. Accountability also makes legislators political actors, which we too often treat as a bad thing. It is not. Politics is how we hold the powerful to account.
Even still, the first question matters. The public thinks of a crime as a violation of law. Thus, legislators considering impeaching the president have to ask if the public can be convinced that the president is a scofflaw. This cloaks impeachment, a thoroughly political process, in the rhetoric of legality. The law matters, not because a judge or jury will rule on impeachment, but because the public will evaluate the motives and actions of legislators with reference to the law.
Many legislators will nonetheless act solely out of partisan hatred, political expediency, or some combination thereof. And most of these will suffer no political consequences. Yet some legislators will suffer electorally if they allow partisanship to override the facts in full view of the electorate. Fulsome disclosure will not force legislators to decide impeachment on the merits. However, well-earned political fear can get them to the right answer via a lesser path.
No plausible argument for anonymity
Process and substance both matter. The public must decide if the president should be impeached, but also if the impeachment process is fair and public-spirited. For that to work, legislators must hear testimony in full view of an attentive nation. Attempting to establish facts in the dark increases the likelihood that the public will see impeachment as a partisan exercise.
The Editorial Board: Don't reveal the whistleblower on Donald Trump's phone call with Ukraine
Reenter the press. For citizens to decide if their representatives are acting in good faith, they need to have all of the facts of the case. The public has a right to ask and have answered critical questions of fact and motive, including about the factual basis for impeachment, and the goals and behavior of the whistleblower. If enlightening the public requires unmasking the whistleblower, so be it.
Prior to the House vote, before an impeachment process formally began, plausible arguments for protecting the whistleblower’s identity could be made. Laws exist that protect civil servants who come forward with reports of wrongdoing. Moreover, being thrust into the middle of a public controversy is upsetting, even frightening. The whistleblower is doubtlessly enduring a great deal. I have compassion for that.
However, with the impeachment vote, the House has moved beyond the realm of administrative procedures, and into the rarified air of high politics. This public, political process — based mainly on the whistleblower’s complaint — must necessarily subject the whistleblower’s intentions and behaviors to scrutiny. Put more simply, the whistleblower’s privacy is less important than the public’s need for information now that impeachment is underway.
Bureaucrats need oversight, too
Press outlets arguing to the contrary make themselves ridiculous. The media don't generally argue that administrative rules should override a compelling public interest in information. Keeping secret the moving spirit behind removing an elected official is constitutionally absurd. Whistleblower-protection policies are all good and well, but they are not more important than the public’s ability to decide whether or not one group of elected officials is justified in removing another elected official.
Americans understand fairness: 'Whistleblower' must testify under oath and in person: Rep. Jim Jordan
This is doubly so given the whistleblower has no firsthand knowledge of the Zelensky call. Rather, his complaint compiled the concerns of several officials, none of whom — as far as we know — have issued a whistleblower complaint themselves. When, why, and how the whistleblower undertook this collection may reinforce or call into question the credibility of his complaint. The public deserves to make a judgment on that question. Doing so requires unmasking the whistleblower.
The media’s reticence to date is understandable. If the House had failed to vote to move forward with impeachment, outing the whistleblower would have had a chilling effect on future complaints. Yet now that the vote has passed and the process has begun, powerful people are attempting to unmask and shield the whistleblower for partisan reasons. The media needs to put the facts before the people and let them decide.
The press habitually lionizes the quiet professionalism of our civil service, whether or not that “quiet professional” label fits. They forget that politicians enjoy the democratic imprimatur of having been elected. Unelected bureaucrats do not.
Legislators are accountable to the people. Bureaucrats are not. Politicians prevaricate, equivocate, and disappoint. But they are public persons accountable to the public. Even in our polarized age, the people rightly answer momentous questions of state by selecting decision-makers at the ballot box. The press has a solemn obligation to help inform that selection. By shielding the whistleblower, even after the House vote, the media is neglecting that duty.
Luke Thompson is a Republican political consultant and commentator based in New York City. He is the president of Ad Astra Insights. Follow him on Twitter: @ltthompso
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump-Ukraine call: Public needs to know whistleblower's identity