It’s not an understatement to say that John Kostyack is closely watching who may be coming forward next with information about that controversial call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Kostyack is the executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group that helps to protect and encourage whistleblowers in the corporate and political fields to come forward, despite the impact it may have on them professionally and personally.
The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government from actions or threats of retaliation. Trump has been accused of violating this act by several House Democrats, including presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who asked Twitter to suspend Trump’s account.
Now, with not one, but two whistleblowers at the center of Trump’s impeachment inquiry, the president has continuously disputed their accounts, including in a series of tweets on Wednesday.
“No Pressure at all said Ukraine! Very congenial, a perfect call,” Trump said in one of the tweets. “The Whistleblower and others spoke BEFORE seeing the Transcript. Now they must apologize to me and stop this ridiculous impeachment!”
Is Trump violating the Whistleblower Act with his comments—or just walking a fine line? Kostyack weighs in.
Q: Why is there so much scrutiny about if the whistleblower is protected or not?
A: In its intelligence community whistleblower law, Congress expressed its desire to hear from any intelligence community whistleblower offering to provide “urgent” and “credible” information about abuses of power. It knew that protecting whistleblowers against reprisals would be essential to persuade them to step forward with this information.
The whistleblowers who stepped forward in the Ukraine matter deserve the fullest protection of the laws afforded to them. They fully cooperated with the proper authorities and complied with the law, according to the Intelligence Community Inspector General.
Both whistleblowers have skilled attorneys and sympathetic members of Congress who agree on the need to protect them, and so we’re cautiously optimistic their identities will be kept under wraps. We certainly hope that this protection continues.
Q: Why is the president so determined to reveal the whistleblowers’ identities?
A: I cannot know the President’s motives, but I can say that threatening whistleblowers is contrary to the longstanding principles of whistleblower law, established at the founding of this country. Lawmakers from both parties have always agreed that whistleblowers are needed and that an environment has to be created where they are encouraged, not punished.
Unfortunately, there’s a long history of whistleblowers and their families being threatened and punished just for speaking out against misconduct. We at the National Whistleblower Center have advocated, and will always advocate, for strong consequences if the rules against reprisals are violated.
Fortunately, in the case of the Ukraine whistleblowers, we have a bipartisan consensus in Congress, which includes Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), one of the architects of the whistleblower law, that we want these whistleblowers to be heard and protected.
What we have learned over the years is the typical whistleblower can’t stand to sit silent and let the abuse of the law go by; they know must speak out when laws have been violated. And, after all they have been through, after all the trauma and backlash, they almost all say uniformly that they will speak out again because they have a strong sense of right and wrong.
But so much of this suffering is completely avoidable. Whistleblowers need to know that they are entitled to their anonymity. The laws should be clear that no one should be making direct or implied threats or calling to have their identities exposed. To expose them now would send a message of intimidation to all future whistleblowers. We will strongly resist any actions or statements that jeopardize the safety of whistleblowers.
Q: Why is the president lashing out at the whistleblower(s) so blatantly?
A: Again, I cannot know the President’s motives, but this looks like the typical backlash we see from those feeling under attack for corruption. It’s very common to see accused individuals shooting the messenger rather than discussing the evidence. It certainly appears that the President and his allies are trying to shift the attention to the first whistleblower’s credibility and to personally attack this individual.
The credibility of these two individuals would a legitimate topic if they were testifying at trial, but they are not. They are giving investigative leads to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to follow up with. That’s what the whistleblower laws are set up for.
If there were to be a trial, it would happen in the Senate, and the House impeachment managers would decide which witnesses would testify. At that point, the president, who would essentially be the defendant, would have the opportunity to confront his accusers. We’re not at that stage yet.
It’s way too early to conjecture on who will be star witnesses in this case if it comes to a trial. We know that the whistleblowers fulfilled their legal duties by providing evidence to investigators. Now the investigators will decide on which witnesses and documents they will rely to make their case. It is very possible that the testimony of the two whistleblowers will not even be needed.
10/16/19: This story has been updated to include extended responses from John Kostyack.
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—5 lessons history has taught us about impeachment
—What is CrowdStrike, the company Trump mentioned during his Ukraine call?
—How the circumstances around Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry differ from Bill Clinton’s
—How whistleblowers have taken down titans of American business
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