Donald Trump and the Republicans want to out the anonymous whistleblower who first reported on the president’s telephone conversation with the Ukrainian president.
Exposing him along with subpoenaing Hunter Biden in the Trump inquiry are at the heart of Trump’s impeachment defense.
The point is that culturally we hate snitches and Trump is trying to play on the hate.
The demand to call Biden is diversionary. By that, try to argue he did something wrong as an excuse for the president’s demand that Ukraine investigate Biden. Besides the fact Hunter Biden was already investigated and cleared, even if he did do something wrong it does not excuse the president’s behavior. He called on another country to investigate a political opponent and conditioned military aid on it. This is either abuse of power or a violation of federal campaign laws, both possible causes of impeachment.
One, part of the demand to expose the whistleblower is legal–asserting that constitutional due process demands that the president has a right to confront his accuser. This argument fails for an obvious reason–impeachments are not criminal inquiries. No less an authority than Alexander Hamilton in Federalist number 65 made this point. The criminal due process protections of the Bill of Rights do not apply.
Two, even if exposed it would not matter because other sources and testimony have independently corroborated the whistleblower’s original report.
But more important, the purpose in outing the whistleblower is simple–we hate snitches. The labeling of the whistleblower as a traitor hits at a culturally deep-seated belief in American society.
From the time we are very young, the most dreaded thing to be called is a tattletale, fink, or stool pigeon. Remember times in school when someone threw an eraser and the teacher asked who threw it? No one confessed and all of you ended up in detention. You sat there thinking it was unfair but you never dared raise your hand and snitch on who did it for fear you would pay the price at recess in the schoolyard.
The point is that culturally we hate snitches and Trump is trying to play on that hate. One of my professors, Edward Weisband, long ago pointed this out in his Resignation in Protest. In the US, we claim to care about ethics, integrity, and individualism, but then punish the principled public official who exposes corruption as disloyal or not a team player.
The way to evade culpability for corruption is to expose the whistleblower, argue he is disloyal, and therefore discredit him.
In attacking and exposing the whistleblower something more dangerous is being undermined–the historical importance of encouraging individuals to report fraud and abuse, often with the need to guarantee anonymity in order to prevent the very type of retaliation that Trump and the Republicans are trying to do.
Dating back to the early days of America, in 1777, Congress passed a law encouraging members of the military to report suspected cases of prisoner abuse. The 1863 False Claims Act encouraged reporting of profiteering and abuse during the Civil War. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 created mandates in the private sector for anonymous reporting of suspected illegal behavior in the corporate world. The 2010 Dodd-Frank law strengthened these provisions. Then there is the Inspector General Act of 1978 , the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998, and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012.
These were all adopted to encourage the exposure of political corruption within the federal government. In many cases, they guarantee the anonymity of the whistleblower. They do so to prevent reprisals and attacks against them because we hate tattletales.
American history thus shows the importance of laws to encourage whistleblowing. Exposing corruption and abuses of power is critical to the promotion of a free society.
The Trump-Republican attack on the legal protections afforded to whistleblowers is powerfully shortsighted, both in terms of how exposing this specific whistleblower will not alter the case against Trump, but also in terms of the damage it does to exposing improper and perhaps illegal behavior in government.
Originally published in Schultz’s Take, republished with the author’s permission.
David Schultz is a professor in the political science department at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Professor Schultz currently is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Public Affairs Education and also is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Public Integrity, Election Law Journal, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis, and Social Science Studies.