A look back at Ukraine whistleblower’s role in Trump’s impeachment

With 100 senators listening quietly to the highly-scripted and choreographed arguments of the House impeachment managers, one might be forgiven for needing more caffeine breaks this week, especially knowing the likelihood that Trump will be acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate without all the facts of the case heard.

Giving a glimpse into the Trump team’s dismissive view of the impeachment process – Trump defense lawyer Jordan Sekulow asked why there was a trial in the first place.

In an elegant break from the trial’s decorum on Tuesday, impeachment manager Rep. Hakeem Jeffries explained that an abuse of power by the president undermines American democracy, driving his point home by quoting the rapper Biggie Smalls.

“And if you don’t know, now you know,” said Jeffries before the Senate chamber, a line from “Juicy,” as Trevor Noah noted on the Daily Show this week.

And if indeed you don’t know, or may have forgotten, how this all got started, it’s worth a reminder that Trump’s impeachment began with the sounding of a shrill alarm: a whistleblower’s complaint.

It was a government official who came forward – through government channels – and first highlighted alleged wrongdoing by the Trump administration in the withholding of $400 million in aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into Trump’s chief political rival former Vice President Joe Biden and his son for involvement in a Ukrainian natural gas company. This person exposed the truth based on a belief that they would be covered under the Whistleblower Protection Act, which was passed in 1989 to “strengthen and improve protection for the rights of federal employees, to prevent reprisals, and to help eliminate wrongdoing within the Government.”

But almost immediately after the news broke of a Ukraine whistleblower, President Trump started to call for the person to be exposed in ways that felt downright menacing. 

Speaking at a closed-door event at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in September 2019, Trump said, “I want to know who’s the person that gave the [Ukraine] whistleblower the information, because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right? We used to handle them a little differently than we do now.”

Trump and his allies in Congress began to speculate on the whistleblower identity and made efforts to discredit the individual. Around the same time late last year, right-wing websites circulated a name they theorized to be that of the whistleblower. 

As a result, the Trump administration may have in one fell swoop sent the movement for accountability that was spurred by the Whistleblower Protection Act back several decades. According to a Government Business Council survey of federal employees quoted in a recent article in the National Law Review, “19 percent of respondents are ‘much less’ likely to report wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities based on President Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community whistleblower. Another 15 percent said they would be ‘somewhat less’ likely to report wrongdoing.”

Since American history has produced only two presidential impeachment trials, we don’t have a lot to compare this moment to and to assess how the whistleblower is being treated then and now. 

But certainly the most relevant parallel is the case for impeachment against Richard Nixon – who resigned before he could be impeached – which led to his resignation. The unravelling of Nixon’s presidency was really set in motion when a source, who became known as, “Deep Throat,” revealed the Watergate scandal to The Washington Post. After he died in 2005, his identity was revealed as Mark Felt, a longtime FBI investigator who rose to become the bureau’s Associate Director. 

And during the congressional hearings against Nixon, there was also John Dean, who came forward to testify that Nixon had lied to the press about Watergate in a coverup. But Daniel Ellsberg  was the first to sound the alarm on the Vietnam War-era government’s wrongdoings when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971, setting in motion a series of events that would draw Nixon into trying to discredit him and eventually be included in the impeachment process. Ellsberg was an analyst for the Department of Defense during the height of the Vietnam War, who shared 7,000 pages of documents showing the war was not winnable. 


I recently visited Ellsberg, now 88, to talk about the parallels between then and now, and he shared his view that the Ukraine whistleblower went about sounding the alarm on Trump’s actions the wrong way. Ellsberg, who was not protected by any of the protections for whistleblower faced a life in prison for his actions in releasing the Pentagon Papers. He said that the current whistleblower took advantage of the protections, but could have had greater impact in leaking the information to the press rather than using the government channels allegedly there to protect him. 

Ellsberg explained, “This whistleblower, I might say, used a tactic which is fine for getting it out without being prosecuted, through channels. But it didn’t work any more than anything else worked. The White House, in violation of the act, kept that complaint from going to Congress.” He said that ”only whistleblowers acting without authorization, not through channels” made it possible for the Ukraine complaint to see the light of day. “We wouldn’t have it otherwise.”

As Ellsberg pointed out, it was not just one whistleblower on Ukraine who set the process for impeachment in motion, but a kind of chorus of whistleblowers who ultimately reinforced each other and caused the system to finally react to what many officials on the inside knew was wrong, and possibly an abuse of office.

A question that hangs in the air over Washington now is whether the first Ukraine whistleblower will be called to testify in the impeachment trial now underway in the Senate.  The person’s legal team has offered to have the whistleblower answer questions, and is bracing for the possibility that the person will be called and dragged into the light despite the fact that a long list of on-the-record witnesses came forward and backed up the original claim of a phone call in which Trump spelled out the so-called quid pro quo of releasing the aid in exchange for the investigation of the Bidens.  For now, it’s not clear there will be any witnesses called before the Senate trial proceedings against President Trump. For now the drama just continues to plot along with its predictable script and what feels like a choreographed process of checks and balances in a bitterly divided congress.