Senate Republicans are questioning the credibility of the whistleblower who filed a complaint that triggered an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, parroting the rhetoric of the White House and Trump’s allies in the media.
The questions about the whistleblower’s credibility are the latest line of defense against the bombshell report, which focuses on a phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to work with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son. The president himself attacked the whistleblower in a closed-door meeting Thursday, calling him “close to a spy” and suggesting he committed treason.
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The whistleblower wrote in the complaint that his concerns were based on conversations with more than half a dozen U.S. officials. The whistleblower further alleged that senior White House officials tried to “lock down” records of the call to keep quiet the nature of the president’s conversation with Zelensky.
But Republicans have argued that because the whistleblower was not personally on the call, he lacks credibility.
“It’s not actually clear. He’s not really a whistleblower, so it’s really more hearsay,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said Friday. “If we’re talking about someone who actually is not a whistleblower, someone who’s only heard it hearsay, then that brings everything into question.”
He added that the “concept of someone who heard it secondhand does not make them a credible person on the topic.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), too, described the whistleblower’s complaint as “hearsay” and argued he “does not fulfill” the definition of a whistleblower.
“It strikes me as somebody who doesn’t have any personal knowledge of what he’s talking about,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “It’s somebody who talked to somebody else who said they were there and this is what happened. So I think that undermines it.”
Republican senators have grappled this week with how to address the substance of the whistleblower’s complaint, which was released Thursday morning, and a White House-released summary of Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian president that confirmed he did indeed ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent. Only a handful of Republicans expressed concern about the summary’s content, among them Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
Most others in the GOP argued there was no “quid pro quo” on the call — even though Trump’s prodding about an investigation came in the form of a “favor” request and immediately followed conversation about U.S. military aid to Ukraine — and suggested that the controversy would ultimately be more damaging for the Biden family. Several Republicans said Thursday that they hadn’t read the complaint as they left the Capitol for a two-week recess.
Some senators were more diplomatic about the whistleblower’s credibility. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a longtime advocate for whistleblowers, said that until a lawyer tells him otherwise, he’ll believe the author of the complaint meets the definition of a whistleblower. But he also described the information in the complaint as “second and third-hand” and said he needed more corroboration before coming to a conclusion about the complaint’s allegations.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has refrained from discussing whether the content of the president’s conversation with the Ukrainian president is impeachable, did come to the defense of whistleblowers in light of Trump’s attacks.
“That is a gross mischaracterization of whistleblowers,” Collins, one of the GOP senators believed to be most in danger of losing reelection next year, said. “Whistleblowers have been essential in bringing to the public’s attention wrongdoings, fraud, waste, abuse, law breaking, and I very much disagree with the president’s mischaracterization.”
She added that while federal law grants the whistleblower protection from workplace retaliation, “that doesn’t make the president’s comments acceptable in any way.”
Thus far, little is known about the actual identity of the whistleblower. Citing unnamed sources, The New York Times reported Thursday that the whistleblower is a CIA officer but did not further identify them. Acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire and intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday in a closed-door session, after which Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee’s chairman, said more information was needed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the president’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, said this week that the question is no longer about the whistleblower but about the people who spoke to him.
“I want to know who is the person who went to the whistleblower,” Graham said. “Who is the person who went to the whistleblower? Why did they pick that person and what did they talk about? Because this is a fairly sophisticated effort to write a narrative rather than blow a whistle.”