Trump branding whistle-blower a 'spy' may fuel impeachment probe

A protester holds up a sign outside the US Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Sept 26, 2019.
A protester holds up a sign outside the US Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Sept 26, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - United States President Donald Trump appeared to threaten a government whistle-blower who is protected under federal law, adding to the list of accusations that could fuel the impeachment inquiry in Congress.

Mr Trump said the unidentified whistle-blower had no direct knowledge of the President's actions and was "almost a spy", according to an account of his remarks on Thursday (Sept 26) to members of the US Mission to the United Nations.

A recording of the private meeting was published by the Los Angeles Times.

He also took aim at unidentified White House officials cited in the whistle-blower's complaint.

"I want to know who's the person, who's the person who gave the whistle-blower the information? Because that's close to a spy," Mr Trump said.

He went on: "You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now."

Whistle-blowers are supposed to be protected from retaliation by superiors, and the law outlines the procedures. This employee who came forward followed those steps, said Mr Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence.

"I think he followed the law every step of the way," Mr Maguire told the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

The Democratic chairmen of three powerful House committees said Mr Trump's words could harm their effort to secure testimony from the intelligence whistle-blower and others.

"The President's comments today constitute reprehensible witness intimidation and an attempt to obstruct Congress' impeachment inquiry," a statement from Representatives Eliot Engel, Mr Adam Schiff and Mr Elijah Cummings said.

 
 
 
 

A federal law passed in 1998 outlines the procedure for members of the intelligence community to complain confidentially about government practices, while protecting them from retaliatory acts like getting fired or demoted.

The Intelligence Community WhistleBlower Protection Act spells out how employees or contractors should give information to Congress.

"The law says we will give protections to whistle-blowers to have the confidence to come forward," said Mr John Phillips, whose Washington law firm represents whistle-blowers.

"You have to do that in this world because we know how whistle-blowers can get chewed up and pay a huge price for revealing information that's harmful to others."

Mr Phillips said that Mr Trump's comments could have a chilling effect on would-be informants.

"If the President calls a whistle-blower a spy, he's discouraging others from coming forward," Mr Phillips said. "Who wants to be labelled as a spy by the president?"

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican member of the Intelligence Committee who sometimes breaks with Mr Trump, also expressed concern.

"Whistle-blowers have been essential in bringing to the public's attention wrongdoing, fraud, waste, abuse, law-breaking, and I very much disagree with the President's characterisation," she told reporters on Thursday.

The intense focus on the intelligence employee who came forward could threaten his or her anonymity.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that the person was a Central Intelligence Agency employee who was assigned to work at the White House at one point but has since returned to the CIA.

Critics said the Times was encouraging intimidation of the whistle-blower.

The newspaper's executive editor, Mr Dean Baquet, defended his decision to publish details about the person, saying it was "essential to understanding one of the most important issues facing the country - whether the President of the United States abused power and whether the White House covered it up."