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Attacks on the Whistle-Blower Miss the Point

It is certainly possible that the whistle-blower has malign motives towards the president. That is fact is of public interest, but it’s not even of tertiary importance relative to the president’s abuse of power. It is relevant that W. Mark Felt, also known as Deep Throat, was angry at President Richard Nixon for installing a crony at the head of the FBI, but it is more important that Nixon was guilty. It is relevant that the reporter who exposed the blackface photo in Ralph Northam’s yearbook is a conservative, but it is more important that the photo exists. It is relevant that Edward Snowden fled the United States after revealing that the Obama administration was breaking federal laws against warrantless surveillance, but more important than the law being broken in the first place.

Put simply, whistle-blowers often have political motives, or motives that people can reasonably criticize, disagree with, or find abhorrent. But those motives do not supersede, diminish, or otherwise validate the misconduct they expose. To fixate on those motives at the expense of the misconduct being uncovered is to reward malfeasance.

The exception is where there is no actual misconduct revealed—then the motives of the individual coming forward become more significant. But Trump supporters are so bereft of benign explanations for the president’s behavior that they have fallen to mischaracterizing it, pretending it did not occur, or suggesting that the president was acting in jest. Similarly, Taibbi simply doesn’t say what Trump did, or why it would matter in the first place.  

Nor does the fact that the whistle-blower is a CIA official negate the complaint. One of the reasons to fear the power of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies is that they could use their considerable powers not to enforce the law or protect Americans from violence, but to manipulate the political process in their favor. Indeed, despite all the rhetoric about “Deep State” conspiracies, the most prominent example of such direct interference is the head of the FBI breaking protocol announcing an investigation of Hillary Clinton, while keeping the investigation into Trump secret, in order to avoid a backlash from right-wing officials within the bureau. But corrupt use of national-security authority is the very abuse of power that Trump himself was engaged in—pressuring Ukraine in order to force that nation to kneecap his political opponent. If justified skepticism of intelligence agencies leads you to ignore the very kinds of abuses that make them perilous to democracy, then you’ve missed the point.

The stakes here are existential. You cannot have free speech, due process, or fair elections in a country where the head of state can unilaterally demand investigations of political critics and rivals. It is not a power any president, from any party, should ever have. Whatever the whistle-blower’s motives, they pale in importance compared with the misconduct that’s been uncovered.

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