Whistleblower attorneys fear for client's safety as Trump allies move to out him

WASHINGTON — On the evening of Oct. 2, Mark Zaid, one of the attorneys representing the anonymous official whose whistleblower complaint sparked the impeachment probe into President Trump, received an email with the subject line: “a bullet in your head.” 

Zaid reported the email to the FBI, which investigated and determined the threat wasn’t credible, but that message was just one of the dozens received by the whistleblower’s attorneys from individuals ranging from the merely critical to downright threatening. 

On Wednesday morning, a person using the encrypted email service ProtonMail told Zaid to “DIE you piece of FILTH,” and another emailed the legal team repeatedly, in one message saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin “would have already shot scum like this,” referring to the whistleblower. A third told Andrew Bakaj, the whistleblower’s primary lawyer and head of his own law firm Compass Rose Legal Group, that someone would “come up to [him] on the street” when he “least expects it,” hinting at violence. 

Others are less threatening but still critical, like a man going by the name Jeb Stuart, who called in to insist the whistleblower come forward with their complaints publicly. 

A review of a trove of voicemails, emails and messages on social media provided to Yahoo News by the whistleblower’s legal team demonstrate the effects of efforts by Trump allies to vilify the whistleblower and those testifying against the president in the impeachment inquiry. That campaign consists of a blend of talking points promoted by key conservative figures and those originating from Trump or his allies themselves. 

The results, according to the whistleblower’s lawyers, has been a campaign of harassment that makes them fear for their client’s personal safety. 

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, AP

“My legal career has been spent fighting to uphold First Amendment protections, but sadly, many do not realize that the Constitution does not give them the right to harass or threaten private citizens,” Zaid told Yahoo News. “Regardless of their taunts, it will not deter us from fulfilling our ethical and professional responsibilities to our clients, nor will it intimidate us either.”

However, the efforts to expose and delegitimize the whistleblower have expanded over the last week beyond everyday citizens to Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, culminating Wednesday morning when the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted a name circulating in right-wing media circles as the whistleblower.

While not all of the individuals calling in to the lawyers are threatening, most have a common agenda: exposing the whistleblower’s identity. 

On Oct. 6, a man going by the name of Jeb Stuart called the lawyers representing the whistleblower whose complaint ignited an impeachment inquiry that threatens to derail Donald Trump’s presidency and left a joking voicemail, later following up about a month later with a more serious email demanding they bring their client “in front of Congress and answer all their questions.” 

Contacted by Yahoo News, Stuart, who would not say if he was using his real name but happened to share it with a famous Confederate military officer from Virginia, described himself as a retired Marine living in Florida. He told Yahoo News that he believed the whistleblower was surely “put up to it” and that “impeachment is a trial, whether we admit it or not,” and President Trump deserves the right to “face [his] accusers.” 

He says he doesn’t trust the media, but found out details about the whistleblower from conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, and that his beliefs “[have] nothing to do with reporting” from established news outlets.

President Trump with radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh at a rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Nov. 5, 2018. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Stuart is one of dozens who have inundated the whistleblower’s legal team, often parroting talking points from conservative media and right-wing corners of the internet. His complaints, and his commentary, were some of the tamest. Others screamed profanity at Zaid and insisted the whistleblower and those who defend him are a threat to the United States, and called or emailed the legal team repeatedly, some with sexually explicit language. 

Those messages were emailed through the attorneys’ websites, left on voicemail inboxes, direct messaged on Facebook and Twitter and even sent from people’s professional LinkedIn accounts.

Some of them, like Stuart, appeared open to questions about their support for President Trump and what they want to see happen in the impeachment inquiry; they don’t view their messages as harassment. Others insisted on lashing out without explanation, or even denied calling and leaving harassing voicemails in the first place. One even insisted that Yahoo News must have “purchased” his contact information, though he sent emails to the lawyers.

The lawyers, for their part, are vehemently against attempts to expose their client. Bakaj on Tuesday night stated that “if the President or any Member of Congress engages in rhetoric or activity that places my client in danger, they will be held personally responsible,” hinting at potential legal consequences.

“Andrew knows first-hand what it’s like to be a whistleblower, and Mark’s been in the spotlight for a number of high-profile cases across the political spectrum,” said Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst for transparency nonprofit the Government Accountability Project. “At the same time, it’s troubling that powerful people are cheering on the harassment they’re facing. ... Some of the President’s defenders are trying to shoot the messengers’ messengers, but these two are bulletproof.” 

The callers, when reached by Yahoo News, uniformly insisted that the whistleblower was in no danger of physical harm. “I think it’s a myth that the left perpetuates that we have to protect these people because angry Trump supporters are going to take him out in the woods and tar and feather him,” said Ronny Brienes, who identified himself as a retired military officer living in Florida.

Exposing the whistleblower has been fundamental to the strategy of Trump’s allies. 

On Oct. 30, the day before Democrats voted to formalize the impeachment proceedings, one source close to Trump predicted the president’s backers would increasingly need to focus on the whistleblower’s identity as impeachment became more public. “Unmasking the whistleblower is ultimately fair to President Trump, because he has a right to confront his accuser,” explained the source.

Three days later, Trump himself took to Twitter to complain that the whistleblower had “disappeared.” “Where is the Whistleblower?” he asked. 

The White House did not respond to requests for comment about the apparent campaign to identify the whistleblower.

Conservative media outlets, however, have already published articles purporting to name the whistleblower. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill also joined the push for unmasking. On Monday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul stood on stage with the president at a rally in his home state and declared, “The whistleblower needs to come before Congress as a material witness.”

“I say tonight to the media, do your job and print his name,” said Paul. 

Trump looks on as Sen. Rand Paul speaks at a campaign rally in Lexington, Ky., on Monday. (Photo: Bryan Woolston/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., endeavored to do exactly that. Don Jr. tweeted a Breitbart headline that purportedly named the whistleblower.

Trump supporters argue that the case for outing the whistleblower is, in part, based on allegations the official worked with Joe Biden while the former vice president’s son was being paid by a Ukrainian company. As a member of the National Security Council, the whistleblower would have worked closely with the administration of President Barack Obama as they did with Trump’s White House. 

Jason Miller, the senior communications director for the president’s 2016 campaign and a co-host of the daily pro-Trump podcast “War Room: Impeachment” argued that the president and his supporters have a right to know the whistleblower’s “political affiliations” and details of any work they did with Democratic officials.  

“There’s no such thing as a completely 100 percent unbiased person in this process,” Miller said, adding, “These are all things that the American public deserves to know before the whistleblower’s comments are etched into a tablet and presented … as truth from up above.”

Miller, who is regularly in touch with the White House, has made the case for outing the whistleblower on air. On Tuesday, he said his podcast featured a lawyer who argued that the Whistleblower Protection Act doesn’t contain anything about “being able to remain anonymous.” After Don Jr.’s tweet, Miller dismissed the potential for threats against the whistleblower as “a red herring to distract from the fact that the whistleblower and his lawyers know they are not afforded anonymity by the whistleblower act.”

“This whistleblower knew exactly what he was getting into,” Miller said. 

Yet the harassment has also gone beyond the whistleblower and affected at least one witness in the impeachment trial. Fiona Hill, President Trump’s former top adviser on Russia at the National Security Council, appeared rattled and upset when met at her home by two Yahoo News reporters. She said she had to tape her mailbox shut and closely monitor for threats. She referred all questions to her lawyer. 

Trump’s allies and the conservative media, however, are focusing on the whistleblower. Asked about the possibility that Don Jr.’s tweet could spark more harassment, Miller pointed to conservative media coverage that attempted to out the whistleblower as justification.

“It’s been out there in so many different news reports,” Miller said. “In a million different places.”

Those websites printing the name, however, appear to be primarily right-wing outlets, or sites that aggregate from those organizations. 

Donald Trump, Jr. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

Brienes, who left Zaid a message calling the whistleblower “a rat,” told Yahoo News he got a lot of his information from Twitchy.com, a website founded in 2012 by Michelle Malkin, a conservative blogger, and also mentioned Rush Limbaugh. 

When asked how he thought he knew the whistleblower’s identity and background, he said, “It’s just kind of out there” and noted that Realclearpolitics.com, a Chicago based news aggregator, “had articles about it.” However, he said that he relied a lot upon his own ability to “know a scam when I see one.”

A woman who called Zaid from a Connecticut number, but did not identify herself over the phone when reached by Yahoo News, said that “there is a place where you can find the truth on the internet. … If you really want the truth, you can find it,” when asked where she was getting her information.

“I’m an American citizen who’s a patriot who wants to know the truth,” she said. “I don’t trust the mainstream media at all,” she added, before hanging up.

A 67-year-old man who asked not to be named, but described himself as a “crusty old retired warrant officer,” said he didn’t remember calling Zaid, but has been watching ”congressional hearings and interviews,” including those featuring House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff. The man said he can “read [Schiff’s] eyes, I can read his expressions” and know that he’s “lying again.”

Yahoo News spoke or corresponded with more than a dozen people who contacted Zaid’s office, and the complaints that surfaced again and again were that the whistleblower needed to come out publicly, and that the anonymous official had worked with prominent opponents of Donald Trump, including former CIA Director John Brennan and former Vice President Joe Biden, rendering him not credible. 

“This whistleblower is a joke; he worked for Biden,” said Terry Doran, a 64-year-old who owns a video production company in Westchester, Pa. (The whistleblower has reportedly served multiple presidents analyzing Ukrainian issues at the National Security Council.)

Doran, like some of the other people who called the lawyers, went as far as suggesting that the whistleblower doesn’t exist at all, but is a fabrication created to destroy the president.

“The whole thing is made up, anyway,” Doran continued.

Whether the whistleblower manages to maintain at least nominal anonymity may depend on whether those around the president — and even the president himself — refrain from naming the purported official. 

Asked by Yahoo News about his decision to tweet the whistleblower’s name, Donald Trump Jr. emailed a response. However, he asked for his response to be “on background,” in other words, anonymous. 

Alexander Nazaryan and Suzanne Smalley contributed reporting.

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