Teachers have a legal duty to report suspected child abuse and neglect. Here in Vermont we’re not expected to wait until we’re certain abuse has occurred. In fact, we’re not allowed to wait for anything close to certainty. Our threshold for reporting is “reasonable suspicion.” 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 from a third party, I face a substantial fine and imprisonment.
Government whistleblowers also grapple with a duty to report, but their duty is rooted solely in their ethics. Rather than face criminal penalties if they don’t report what they’ve seen or heard, they’re more likely to suffer on-the-job retribution if they do report suspected misdeeds and malfeasance. Like teachers, government whistleblowers needn’t be certain. Their federal statutory threshold for reporting is also “reasonable belief.” Their allegations bring to light possible misconduct, illegal acts and ethical breaches by elected officials and other government workers so they can be investigated. Whistleblower laws exist to 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 and anyone who spoke with the whistleblower, as well as anyone now involved in investigating the charges leveled against him by the whistleblower.
It’s essential to bear in mind the whistleblower’s formal complaint was submitted according to law, that each of the charges detailed in the complaint has been investigated by the inspector general with jurisdiction, and that the inspector general judged the complaint both “credible” and “urgent.”
Despite the repeated false statements issued 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 explicitly clarifying that the whistleblower had provided more than “unsubstantiated assertions,” and did have “direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct.”
Besides, the nine-page, typed summary of the phone conversation the White House distributed, complete with direct quotations, provides sufficient substantiation to implicate the president. So do the president’s subsequent public statements, including his South Lawn confession.
Rendered in brief, the White House summary of his conversation places his request for a political “favor” in the context of Ukraine’s appeal for American military assistance and insinuates President Trump’s approval of the crucial arms sale is contingent on Ukraine’s performing the favor. It confirms 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’s team that Russia did materially 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 political opponents. By tendering this proposition, the American president enlisted the interference of a foreign power in an American election.
These charges and more await adjudication in Congress and the courts. I suspect between the present moment when I’m writing this and the near-future present moment when you’re reading it, matters will grow even more complicated and dire.
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, I’ll ask you to consider the absolutist declaration attributed to France’s Louis XIV — “L’etat, c’est moi.” I am the state. This authoritarian principal is a relic of the age of kings, but it, along with President Trump’s pernicious 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 an elected president who abuses his power. Their specifically cited 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 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,” perfidy being the 18th-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 — a wise president — would carefully curb his inflammatory words.
Our current president isn’t a wise man.
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.