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The President and His Whistleblower

While Donald Trump talks about patriotism, others act on it.

Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

Here are two things that happened this week. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump delivered an aggressively nationalistic speech at the United Nations General Assembly. He framed the world in binary terms. On one side of the divide, there are those who place their own well-being ahead of foreign and personal interests. On the other side, there are those who don’t.

“The future does not belong to globalists,” he told the assembled world leaders. “The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.” What defines a patriot in Trump’s eyes? He described it by what they defend. “Liberty is only preserved, sovereignty is only secured, democracy is only sustained, greatness is only realized, by the will and devotion of patriots,” he said.

One day earlier, Trump angrily denounced an unnamed intelligence official who filed a whistleblower complaint against him. That complaint, which was declassified and released to the public on Thursday, alleges that the president used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country” in the upcoming election. “Also, who is this so-called ‘whistleblower’ who doesn’t know the correct facts,” Trump asked in a series of posts on Twitter on Monday. “Is he on our Country’s side. Where does he come from.”

Asking whether the whistleblower is “on our country’s side” takes some gall. The man who defines his foreign policy strategy as “America First” withheld military aid from a U.S. ally while pressuring its leader to interfere in our elections for personal gain. He adopted “Keep America Great” as a re-election slogan, then showed so little confidence in his own track record as president that he tried to gin up a foreign corruption investigation into a potential opponent’s family. It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of the moral and intellectual hollowness of Trump’s nationalism than the Ukraine scandal—or a clearer act of patriotism from within the government than blowing the whistle on it.

The whistleblower’s complaint opens with a bang. “In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” he wrote. “This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals.” Most of this plot revolves around Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s loose-lipped legal fixer, who has been trying to dig up overseas dirt on former vice president Joe Biden since this spring.

The whistleblower warns that he did not witness many of the events described in the complaint. Those details were instead relayed to him by another “half a dozen” White House and intelligence officials in the course of their day-to-day work. Despite this, there is ample reason to believe the whistleblower’s version of events. Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, said his allegation “appears credible” after independently questioning some witnesses about him. The whistleblower didn’t personally witness Trump’s fateful July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The White House’s own memo of the conversation nonetheless confirms that Trump asked him to probe Biden and his family.

Trump and his allies have insisted that the president did nothing wrong. The whistleblower, nevertheless, describes how many of those who witnessed the Zelenskiy call drew the opposite conclusion. The complaint describes White House officials and lawyers discussing “how to treat the call because of the likelihood, in the officials’ retelling, that they had witnessed the president abuse his office for personal gain.” Those officials allegedly spent the next few days suppressing access to records about the call, including moving the transcript of it to a server where highly classified material is stored. “One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective,” the whistleblower wrote.

Trump’s defenders have also pointed to the lack of an explicit quid pro quo to exonerate him. This requires an aggressive level of willful blindness. Trump personally ordered a halt to U.S. security aid to Ukraine in early-to-mid July, told Zelenskiy that the U.S. “[does] a lot for Ukraine” in the July 25 call, and then immediately asked him for a “favor” from Zelenskiy: investigate the stolen DNC emails during the 2016 election, meet with Giuliani, and “look into” Biden and his son. The Ukrainian government seems to have understood it was a shakedown. Their public readout of the call at the time said Trump had “expressed his conviction” that Zelenskiy’s government would be able to “complete the investigation of corruption cases that have held back cooperation between Ukraine and the United States.”

It’s worth noting that whoever filed the complaint seems to have done everything by the book. Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, defended his conduct while testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. “I think the whistleblower did the right thing,” he said. “I think he followed the law every step of the way.” Even with federal laws that protect whistleblowers from retribution, acting as one can still seriously hinder—or even end—one’s career. Trump reportedly told his aides earlier this week that the whistleblower was “close to a spy,” and alluded to the traditional punishment for espionage: execution.

According to The New York Times, the whistleblower is a CIA officer assigned to the White House during the period of time in question. His identity is still unknown, of course. Someday—perhaps next week, perhaps next year—it will become public. It’s possible that Americans will discover a person of unimpeachable credibility and integrity, and that his reputation will shield them against even the most bad-faith critiques. But we will probably learn that this person is only flesh and blood, shaped by all the particular flaws and foibles that make us who we are. Trump will mercilessly expound upon them to elide his own.

Despite the professional tone in the complaint, there’s a palpable sense of alarm from the whistleblower. “I am deeply concerned that the actions described below constitute ‘a serious or flagrant problem, abuse, or violation of law or executive order,’” he wrote, paraphrasing federal whistleblower laws. There is also a sense of obligation. “I am therefore fulfilling my duty to report this information, through proper legal channels, to the relevant authorities,” he wrote. “I am also concerned that these actions pose risks to U.S. national security and undermine the U.S. government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections.”

Those lines are worth pausing to consider, especially in light of the president’s UN address. “Patriotism” took on a partisan, jingoistic meaning in the post-9/11 era, particularly during the buildup to the Iraq War. In Trump’s hands, the term also carries blood-and-soil undertones. “The true good of a nation can only be pursued by those who love it: by citizens who are rooted in its history, who are nourished by its culture, committed to its values, attached to its people, and who know that its future is theirs to build or theirs to lose,” he said in his speech on Tuesday. “Patriots see a nation and its destiny in ways no one else can.”

What Trump gets wrong is that patriotism isn’t a trait, it’s an action. Whistleblowers understand this. They have played an important role in safeguarding American democracy since the Continental Congress, which defended a group of early Navy sailors who came forward to describe a commodore’s corruption and abuses of power during the Revolutionary War. I won’t try to give a complete taxonomy of what does and doesn’t count as an act of patriotism. But alerting Congress and the American people that the president is secretly abusing his powers for personal gain is surely one of them.

Trump seems to think he can’t get elected, or re-elected, unless a foreign power can kneecap his opponents. In theory, an American nationalist should be offended when other countries interfere in our political process, just as they are offended by multilateral trade deals and the presence of refugees. But that would require Trumpism to be driven by some deeper set of principles instead of illiberal opportunism. That’s why I don’t expect Trump to see the whistleblower’s complaint as an act of patriotism. If he could, it wouldn’t exist.