By Peter Berger
Teachers have a legal duty to report suspected child abuse and neglect. In Vermont we’re not allowed to wait until we’re certain. If I don’t report abuse I could “reasonably suspect” based on what I’ve seen or heard, including what I may have heard secondhand, I face a fine and imprisonment.
Government whistleblowers’ duty to report is rooted solely in their ethics. Rather than face penalties if they don’t report what they’ve seen or heard, they’re likely to suffer on-the-job retribution if they do report suspected misdeeds and malfeasance. Like teachers, government whistleblowers needn’t be certain. Their statutory reporting threshold is “reasonable belief.” Their allegations bring to light possible misconduct by elected officials and other government workers so they can be investigated. Whistleblower laws protect whistleblowers from reprisals because whistleblowers serve the public by helping to protect us.
That’s not, however, the way the subject of a whistleblower allegation is likely to see things, especially if he’s guilty. That would explain why President Trump is threatening reprisals against the whistleblower, anyone who spoke with the whistleblower, and anyone investigating the charges leveled against him by the whistleblower.
Bear in mind that the whistleblower’s formal complaint was submitted according to law. Each charge detailed in the complaint has been investigated by the inspector general, who judged the complaint both “credible” and “urgent.”
Despite the repeated false statements by the President and assorted supporters, the law wasn’t recently and “secretly” changed to allow “secondhand information,” or “hearsay.” Secondhand information has long been accepted in whistleblower cases. The inspector general further refuted President Trump’s claims by clarifying that the whistleblower had provided more than “unsubstantiated assertions” and did have “direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct.”
Besides, the nine-page White House summary of the phone conversation, complete with direct quotations, provides sufficient substantiation to implicate the President. So do his subsequent public statements, including his South Lawn confession.
Rendered in brief, the White House summary places his request for a political “favor” in the context of Ukraine’s appeal for American military assistance and insinuates that President Trump’s approval of the crucial arms sale is contingent on Ukraine’s performing the favor. It confirms that President Trump solicited the Ukrainian president to help acquit Russia of interfering in our 2016 election, discredit the conclusions drawn by American intelligence agencies and Robert Mueller that Russia did interfere in 2016, thereby disarming our defense against Russia’s ongoing interference in our 2020 election, and spuriously incriminate Joe Biden, one of President Trump’s principal 2020 opponents. By tendering this proposition, the President enlisted the interference of a foreign power in an American election.
These charges and more await adjudication in Congress and the courts. There are, however, judgments we can render while we wait.
These are not prejudgments. They’re based on what we’ve seen and heard President Trump do and say over the past three years. By his own words and deeds he’s convicted himself.
They’re also not the symptoms of “Trump derangement syndrome.” The derangement doesn’t reside in seeing the President’s likely illegalities and undeniable corruption. The derangement lies in not seeing them.
I won’t attempt to list them here.
Instead, consider Louis XIV’s absolutist declaration, “L’etat, c’est moi.” I am the state. This authoritarian principle is a relic of the age of kings, but it, along with President Trump’s narcissism, explains why he confuses what’s good for him with what’s good for the nation. He swore an oath to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Instead he’s chosen to take care of himself.
It also explains why he confuses loyalty to the nation with loyalty to him. Impeaching a President isn’t “treason.” It isn’t a “coup.” It’s the Constitutional remedy provided by the founders to protect us against a President who abuses his power. Their specific concerns included a future candidate who wins election corruptly and a future President who betrays the public’s trust in his dealings with foreign powers by placing his own interests above the nation’s best interests. In short it’s the Constitutional means to remove a President whose actions, in the judgment of the people’s representatives, necessitate that he forfeit his office and what Mr. Lincoln described as the “immense power” in which we clothe our Presidents.
James Madison described the impeachment and removal process as an “indispensable” defense against a future President’s “incapacity, negligence, or perfidy,” the eighteenth century word for lying. Madison foresaw situations where waiting until the next election “might be fatal to the Republic.”
The founders asked, “Shall any man be above Justice,” and in our Constitution they answered, “No.” They forever rejected any claim that the President “can do no wrong.”
Speech has consequences. After the pipe bombs and the synagogue shootings and the El Paso murders, a wise man would carefully curb his inflammatory words.
Our current President isn’t wise.
Reporting official misconduct doesn’t make you a spy. Conducting an impeachment inquiry isn’t treason. Playing cutesy with the death penalty is dangerous and despicable. Threatening a civil war conjures a national nightmare.
Fearing a man because he’s unstable isn’t the same as respecting him. Repeatedly ranting “It’s a disgrace” doesn’t make something disgraceful. Introducing a falsehood with “As you know” doesn’t make it true. Branding something “fake” doesn’t make it a lie.
The swamp isn’t drained.
The call wasn’t “perfect.”
It isn’t a witch hunt if there’s really a witch.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.