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.
In every industry, government or otherwise, prospective whistleblowers have to weigh their sense of duty to call out wrongdoing against the very real possibility that they'll lose their job, their reputation, or their career in the process. Generally, laws like the Whistleblower Protection Act, which applies to employees of most federal agencies, or the whistleblower provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which apply to employees of certain financial institutions, "protect" whistleblowers on the back end, allowing them to sue for damages or otherwise seek redress if they experience retaliation at work. This design sensibly accounts for the possibility that a company or agency will fix the problem, instead of punishing the employee who identified it.
But at the time they blow the whistle, though, a whistleblower can't know what will happen next—if speaking out will make them a hero or ruin their life. The system requires them to bear all the up-front risk associated with coming forward. Their career within their organization or industry may be, for all intents and purposes, over, and the possibility of future professional vindication or financial recovery is of little comfort when they have to fear for their livelihood or their safety in the meantime. By doing what he can to make the Ukraine whistleblower feel unsafe, Paul is further undermining the already-shaky foundations of whistleblower protections. And for other government employees who are aware of wrongdoing—whether committed by Trump or anyone else—Paul's stunts make the prospect of filing a complaint even more daunting.
There is evidence that Paul and company's bullying campaign is having its intended effect. According to the Wall Street Journal, the whistleblower's legal team has received death threats against their client. One conservative media organization that has published the name of the alleged whistleblower even sent a reporter to the person's parents' home, challenging them to come outside and defend themselves in public.
Not every whistleblower in every industry needs (or even wants) anonymity. But this is a president who encourages supporters to do harm to those whom he considers adversaries, urging rallygoers to "knock the crap out of" protestors and voicing his desire to punch them in the face. Last year, a Trump supporter who described MAGA rallies as "like a new found drug" mailed 16 pipe bombs to, among others, Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, George Soros, and CNN. In this context, protecting the identity of whistleblowers is essential to ensuring their safety and enabling others to come forward, too.
How did a United States senator—just out mowing his lawn—wind up in an altercation that put him in the hospital? Was it a politically motivated attack? Or was it something far more petty? To separate rumor from reality, Ben Schreckinger slipped inside Rand Paul’s gated Kentucky community, where the neighbors tried to help him solve one of the weirder political mysteries in years.
Originally Appeared on GQ