On August 12, a whistleblower within the intelligence community submitted a complaint to the inspector general Michael Atkinson, describing concerns over recent Trump-Ukraine communications that possibly involved abuse of power. Although Trump denied all reports, deeming them as “Fake News stor[ies],” the consequences are clear, including the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, launching an impeachment inquiry into Trump.
So what exactly is a whistleblower? According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, a whistleblower is “an employee who alleges wrongdoing by his or her employer of the sort that violates public law or tends to injure a considerable number of people.” A federal whistleblower typically takes the complaint to the authority in their agency and goes under government investigation. Of course, a whistleblower would prefer to remain anonymous, in fear of any personal or political retribution. To prevent any harm to the informant, the ICWPA (Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, passed and revised in 1998 and 2010) protects whistleblowers from any penalties such as prosecution or firing when reporting any potential wrongdoing within the community. The procedure detailed in the act comprises of the whistleblower reporting the possible concerns to the inspector general, who then determines whether or not the report is credible or important within fourteen days. If it is deemed reliable, the report will be sent to the director of national intelligence, who can release the documents to Congress within a week. If not, the whistleblower can attempt to reach Congress him/herself.
The key question is raised: what was so disturbing about the complaint that caused the entire nation to go into turmoil? The initial whistleblower complaint only describes a “troubling” phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, making some sort of promise that may interfere with foreign affairs and the 2020 elections. The complaint details, “In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials 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.” It also described how Trump wished to investigate the Bidens, adding to the question of whether he was abusing his power in office for personal gain.
Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have pressed for an investigation into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who took a job in the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma. They suspect that Hunter Biden had encouraged the dismissal of Ukraine’s head prosecutor, Shokin, who was investigating Burisma during Biden’s employment (and his father’s term). But, many (including the Ukrainian government itself) argue that such an investigation is unnecessary as the Burisma investigation was only considering events that took place before Hunter Biden took the job.
The notes on the phone call, released September 25, see Trump (falsely) claiming that the US has done much more in economic aid than any of the European countries (he withheld US aid in September until European countries would contribute more), while Zelensky agreed, thanking Trump. Trump then asks for a “favor,” asking Zelensky to look into CrowdStrike, the firm Democrats hired after their 2016 election server was hacked. Trump concludes his suspicions with a short note on Biden’s son and possible corruption.
In this specific case, Atkinson deemed the report of “urgent concern,” sending it off to the director of national intelligence Maguire, who ultimately disagreed with the level of concern Atkinson thought of it as. Here is where the problem comes in: the ICWPA did not specify the procedure for such a case. Many legal experts argue that thus the inspector general would have the final say. The acting DNI (Joseph Maguire) contacted the Office of Legal Counsel, which asserts that if the office deems the complaint not of urgent concern, the inspector general must follow through with the decision.
Three committees in the government have planned depositions to help investigate Trump over the complaint. Yet, Maguire refuses to hand over the complaint to Congress because it involves someone outside the spy agencies, but the chairman of the intelligence committee, Schiff, believes Maguire is keeping the complaint under covers to protect the President’s interests. Schiff took to the public to announce Maguire’s incompliance with the law, stating that he had issued a subpoena for the complaint. Maguire defended his actions before Congress on September 26, stating that he believes the whistleblower’s decision to report was “[doing] the right thing”, but that he was not eager to reveal the complaint as it was an “unprecedented” situation. He claimed he acted on the advice of legal counsel in the Justice Department. Nevertheless, Schiff announced on September 29 the anonymous whistleblower had agreed to testify before Congress “very soon.”
On October 2, a spokesperson for Schiff admitted the whistleblower approached his panel before filing the complaint, while Schiff had stated that “we” (as members of the intelligence committee, not staff) have not spoken to to the whistleblower nor know the identity, making him seem like a deceptive liar. Republicans accuse Schiff of possibly orchestrating the complaint.
Trump has insisted on having the right to know the identity of the whistleblower and continues to attempt to discredit the whistleblower by attacking him/her, displaying, ultimately, the fact that ICWPA only protects whistleblowers from ‘official’ punishment (such as being fired or criminally prosecuted), but not from vehement comments by the president. He even claimed that the whistleblower is a “spy” on September 25. He has chosen to not consider the inappropriateness of his actions, but instead stigmatize the person who has possibly exposed his ways. This creates an issue because any official meaning well for the country and its government will be intimidated into holding back the concern, defying the exact purpose of whistleblowers.
Trump stubbornly denying any accusations and attacking all his enemies (including the whistleblower), Schiff under fire for possibly setting up complaint, Maguire refusing to hand it over to Congress, Pelosi with an impeachment investigation under way. The chaos may have lasted for over two weeks already, the outcome we will soon witness. This whistleblower complaint does more than possibly expose the corruption in the government. It’s not just about the laws and the legality, it also involves the ethics and the unforgettable mark it will have on our country’s future governments.