During a Trump campaign rally in Lexington, Kentucky on Monday, the state’s junior senator, Rand Paul, stopped by to offer a spirited defense of his party’s leader and an unsubtle threat to those he considers enemies. “We also now know the name of the whistleblower,” Paul said triumphantly, referring to the intelligence community official who reported on Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine’s president to open a politically-motivated investigation of former vice president Joe Biden. After questioning the whistleblower’s motivations and suggesting that he be dragged before Congress as a “material witness” in the matter, the senator pointed directly at the assembled TV cameras. “I say tonight to the media: Do your job and print his name!”
Trump, who has asserted a right to “learn everything about” the whistleblower and issued a similar call for their public testimony earlier that day, smirked as he joined in the crowd’s applause. “Wow, that was excellent,” he said after Paul concluded his performance. “He’s a warrior.”
Within the right-wing media ecosystem, efforts to out the whistleblower have been underway for some time already. Multiple outlets have provided valuable signal boosts to unconfirmed reports identifying an individual who allegedly filed the complaint, digging up old school photos to accompany their stories on the subject. Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have reportedly invoked the person’s name in closed-door impeachment hearings, and circulated a dossier of information about their biography, professional history, and alleged links to Democratic politicians and members of the Deep State.
Paul, a self-proclaimed libertarian who made a crusade against warrantless surveillance a key feature of his 2016 presidential campaign, used to be an occasional advocate for strengthening whistleblower protection laws and institutions. When government contractors “see something wrong,” he said at a conference in 2014, “they should be able to report it without repercussions.” Even today, his web site still contains vestiges of a pro-whistleblower worldview that he apparently held before the Trump era made that worldview politically inconvenient. Last week, he even tweeted to his 2.6 million followers a link that included the name in question, calling it “imperative” that lawmakers subpoena the person and have the chance to interrogate them under oath. What was a fringe movement to out the alleged Ukraine whistleblower has gone mainstream.
Shoddy protections for whistleblowers in the United States are neither a new nor a partisan problem. In a 2011 feature for The New Yorker, Jane Mayer profiled the “surprising relentlessness” with which the Obama administration prosecuted leaks, a trend she characterized as at odds with his praise of whistleblowers as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” Two years later, U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden fled the country after publishing thousands of documents describing, among other things, the government’s clandestine efforts to spy on other countries and its own citizens. He has since explained that the laws shielding whistleblowers from retaliation were too convoluted for him to trust, and that he felt there were “no proper channels” through which he could report what he knew. For publishing documents that exposed the extent of civilian deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, former U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning received a 35-year prison sentence; she served about seven years of it before then-President Obama commuted the balance in 2017.