Trump's Alarming Attacks Threaten the Whistleblower—and Our Founding Values | Opinion

From the moment news broke that President Donald Trump was accused of misusing his office for political gain, the president and elected officials who support him have sought to discredit the whistleblower as everything from a partisan hack peddling hearsay to a treasonous enemy of the state with an ax to grind.

To be sure, the president has every right to defend himself, but this is a misguided and dangerous approach that betrays his ignorance of America's history, threatens the whistleblower's safety and makes it less likely that future abuses of power by any federal official will be discovered and corrected. These statements cannot be allowed to continue in defiance of historical context or present facts. So, as the very idea of whistleblowing comes under attack, I think we would benefit from revisiting our nation's history of protecting those who speak truth to the highest levels of power—protections that date back to our nation's founding.

That's right. Whistleblower protections are not a recent creation; they were first put into place in 1778, as the ink of the Declaration of Independence was still drying and more than a decade before the Constitution would enshrine a healthy skepticism of concentrated power into our current system of government.

Historians with far more expertise than I have told the story of the events that led to the passage of this law, but here's a brief summary of how it played out. It began when 10 sailors fighting for the fledgling nation reported misconduct by Esek Hopkins, commander of the Continental Navy, to the Continental Congress and successfully removed Hopkins from his post.

However, the well-connected Hopkins retaliated, and several petition signers suffered personal consequences—despite the veracity of their claims. In response, the Continental Congress passed America's first-ever law ensuring whistleblower protection, which read:

"That it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge."

Read that again. It doesn't say that government officials have a right to report misconduct—it says they have a duty. And it exempts no one—no matter how powerful—from being subject to these accusations. Our founders made this a priority in our earliest, most uncertain days because they knew that for this grand experiment to continue, there could be no person whose interests were greater than the country's interests. An individual who speaks in defense of American principles is not a traitor; they are a patriot.

Fast-forward about 240 years to today. The president, seemingly (and perhaps willfully) unaware of this historical context, has issued dozens of tweets and numerous public statements asking to "unmask" the whistleblower, which not only threatens the whistleblower in question, but could also dissuade future officials from making the same ethical choice. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if the whistleblower is George Washington or Daffy Duck. What matters is if the story they've presented is borne out by the facts. Already, we've seen lifetime public servants and the president's own political appointees corroborate the details of the whistleblower's report, both in sworn testimony and in public statements.

Given the number of accounts that verify the initial complaint, it is clear that the whistleblower's identity or party identification or previous work history no longer holds any bearing on the outcome of this inquiry. Think of it this way: If someone calls 911 to report a fire, and it turns out there is actually a fire, the fire department doesn't haggle over who made the call; they go fight the fire.

In reality, this fixation on revealing the identity of the whistleblower isn't a defense—it's a distraction. It seems that President Trump believes that if he can undermine the credibility of this whistleblower, he can steer attention away from the factual issue at hand. The president's attacks may be baseless, but they can still cause deep harm to both the whistleblower and the nation.

Trump rally
President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Monroe Civic Center in Monroe, Louisiana, on November 6. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

The most immediate concern must be the safety of the whistleblower. The president has roused his supporters into a furor over the identity of this anonymous official, which creates a serious danger to this person. In fact, press reports indicate that the FBI has already investigated death threats against the whistleblower, even though we do not know their name.

The entire situation raises the question: If this is how America treats whistleblowers, who will come forward next time? A chilling effect that prevents the next official who witnesses misconduct anywhere in the government from stepping forward could linger for generations, inflicting untold damage to our democracy.

Throughout our history, we have defended those patriots who call out corruption so that we may follow the light they shine toward a more perfect union. We believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant and salute those whose conscience guides them toward ethical behavior. If we are to continue to benefit from their courage, we must reassert, here and now, that centuries-old American value that speaking truth to power is not a right; it is a duty.

Angus King has served as Maine's first independent U.S. senator since 2013 and sits on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Trump's Alarming Attacks Threaten the Whistleblower—and Our Founding Values | Opinion | Opinion