Thistlethwaite: The whistleblower is an American hero
Not all heroism is found on the battlefield. Heroism can also be found in the halls of government, as in the courageous act of the whistleblower who filed a complaint related to Donald Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president.
The complaint claims not only that Trump misused his office as president for personal gain and endangered national security, but also that White House officials tried to hide that conduct.
It takes an enormous amount of personal and professional valor to file a complaint about the conduct of someone who is routinely called “the most powerful man in the world.” It is a risky business to blow the whistle on powerful people in general, as they try to retaliate. This time was no exception. That happened to this whistleblower almost immediately.
President Trump has appeared to threaten not only the whistleblower for filing a complaint but even those who may have talked to him.
“They’re almost a spy” Trump ranted. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now,” he continued.
This is a severe threat. “Handle it a little differently than we do now” could be a reference to spies such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for espionage during the period of Cold War paranoia.
The whistleblower is not a spy, Mr. Trump, as was made clear in the testimony by Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire. Neither are those who spoke about their concerns to her or him.
In fact, the whistleblower is a hero for trying to protect the integrity of American foreign policy and keep it focused on our national interests, not on personal political gain, and to protect our elections from foreign interference. Again.
The whistleblower should be protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, a law that strengthened the protections put in place in 1978 following the corruptions of the Watergate era. Compliance departments were created to receive complaints and act on them. The intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson — whose authority Maguire temporarily flouted by prohibiting him from sharing the current whistleblower’s complaint with Congress — is part of this system.
Is that going to be enough to protect this whistleblower, given the comments by Donald Trump about spies?
The problem as I see it is that Mr. Trump’s inflammatory comments on many things have turned out to be “dog whistles” — that is, messages that have inflamed his most rabid followers. People’s lives have been threatened as a consequence.
Look at what has happened when Donald Trump has tweeted or retweeted false information about Rep. Ilhan Omar. Death threats against her escalated. “The President of the United States is continuing to spread lies that put my life at risk. What is Twitter doing to combat this misinformation?” she said after a recent such incident.
Rep. Omar keeps standing up to these kinds of threats and doing her job as her district’s representative. She is a political hero.
Sen. John McCain was widely recognized as a war hero, but he was a political hero in my view when he cast a deciding vote to protect the health care of millions of Americans.
Political heroism takes a lot of courage. Political heroism, as we can see from Donald Trump’s inflamed rhetoric about “spies,” can be very dangerous as many people do not want to hear the truth, or see someone do what is right, and so they try to target the person who reveals (or does) the truth.
We must protect this whistleblower not only for the sake of this investigation but for the sake of confronting future corrupt dealings in future administrations. The effect of attacking the character and motives of those who saw something that alarmed them and blew the whistle on it will be for people in the future to be intimidated and not speak up. That has been the aim of whistleblower protection laws, but even with legal protection people can still be intimidated if enough pressure is used.
That is why, I think, we see so little of this kind of political heroism. It is risky, despite the laws.
But, as is clear from what has just happened this week with the whistleblower complaint, it just takes one.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.