Democrats are seeking to drive a wedge between President Trump and Senate Republicans on whether government whistleblowers should be protected from retaliation.
After the Senate voted last week largely along party lines to acquit Trump on impeachment charges, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is drawing on one of the tactics he used during the trial: He is trying to put GOP senators in the awkward position of defending what Democrats argue is corrupt behavior.
Democrats are now working behind the scenes on bipartisan legislation that would protect future whistleblowers, according to a senator and Senate aide familiar with the effort.
Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, such as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who represents many federal workers, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the co-chairman of the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, are expected to lead the effort.
“There is no question in my mind that the events of the last few months have had a really chilling effect on whistleblowers as a general proposition,” Wyden said Monday evening. “I think it is critically important that the rights of whistleblowers be strengthened.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said he’s looking at legislative options as well.
“Certainly people who respond to lawful subpoenas and testify under oath should be protected,” he said.
Vulnerable Republicans in tough races will be under pressure to back the legislation, but if they do, they will risk backlash from Trump, who has recently torched critics such as Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for their impeachment votes.
Schumer on Monday afternoon argued that Republican senators who have previously stood up for whistleblower protections are now staying quiet in fear of Trump.
“It used to be bipartisan. The senator from Iowa [has] always been defending whistleblowers, but all that goes away now that Trump is president,” Schumer said on the Senate floor, referring to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a longtime proponent of protecting government employees who raise red flags over waste, fraud, abuse and other misconduct.
But Schumer’s remarks may have been geared toward another Iowa senator as well: Sen. Joni Ernst (R), who is up for reelection this year.
Ernst on Monday said, “I’d have to see what was proposed,” when asked about her support.
The approach by Schumer mimics a strategy employed during the two-week Senate impeachment trial, when he painted a key procedural vote as a black-and-white choice for vulnerable Republicans: Vote with Democrats to subpoena additional witnesses and documents or block new evidence and participate in a cover-up.
The Democratic leader and his party colleagues are now pressuring Republicans to oppose Trump’s retaliation against whistleblowers and the witnesses who participated in the House impeachment inquiry.
But some Senate Republicans dismissed Schumer’s move as an attempt to relitigate the impeachment trial.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate GOP leadership, said Monday it’s time for Democrats to let go of the partisan tactics of the impeachment trial.
“One of the lessons I’ve learned is that our Democratic colleagues will never quit coming after [the president] in one fashion or another,” he said. “My hope would be we could move the whole impeachment circus behind us. It’s not really a great period in our history.”
“I hope rather than focus on that, we focus on some of these other things,” Cornyn said when asked whether Trump’s punishment of witnesses is a sign that the president hasn’t learned any lessons from impeachment.
Cornyn expressed hope that Trump is through venting his displeasure with people who crossed him during the impeachment debate, which has kept impeachment in the news even after Wednesday’s acquittal.
“I hope that’s a last-week phenomenon and it’s not going to carry on in the future. We’ve got other things we need to do,” Cornyn said.
Schumer on Monday sent letters to all 74 federal inspectors general asking them to investigate “any and all instances of retaliation against anyone who has made, or in future makes, protected disclosures of presidential misconduct to Congress or inspectors general.”
He also asked for information on when they last notified federal employees of their legal rights to report improper conduct and to provide written certification from departments’ and agencies’ general counsels certifying they will not allow retaliation against whistleblowers.
Schumer sent the letters after Trump on Friday ousted U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and booted Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert, from the National Security Council. Both officials offered key testimony on the president’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, was also removed from his job as an attorney on the National Security Council. They were both reassigned to the Pentagon.
“Without the courage of whistleblowers and the role of Inspectors General, the American people may never have known how the President abused his power in the Ukraine scandal,” Schumer wrote in Monday’s letters.
“It is incumbent on you that whistleblowers like LTC Vindman—and others who put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms — are protected for doing what we hope and expect those who serve our country will do when called: tell the truth,” he argued.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway in an interview with “Fox & Friends” Monday morning called Schumer’s letter “ridiculous” and disputed the claim that officials such as Sondland and Vindman have been the victims of retaliation.
She noted that Vindman served as a Pentagon employee detailed to the White House and that such assignments are usually temporary.
“This is very typical in a White House to have a detailee for a temporary period of time who then returns to what their full-time job is,” Conway said, without providing an explanation for his removal before his detail ended.
She indicated it is possible that other administration officials could be reassigned or terminated but declined to elaborate.
Several Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), who faces a tough reelection in November, and Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (Wis.), have expressed misgivings about Trump’s punishment of government officials who crossed him during impeachment.
Collins told reporters in Maine on Friday that she would disapprove of Trump retaliating against anyone who came forward with evidence against him.
Johnson, meanwhile, was one of a handful of Republican senators who privately urged Trump not to fire Sondland.
Most of the officials who testified or otherwise participated in the impeachment inquiry have either left government or switched roles, but there are a handful of exceptions: Laura Cooper, who remains in her role at the Pentagon; Mark Sandy, who was the only Office of Management and Budget official to testify; and the anonymous whistleblower who first raised concerns about Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president, who works in the intelligence community. A few officials at the State Department also remain in their posts.
Top Republicans, however, dispute Schumer’s claim that Trump’s actions on Friday could have a chilling effect on future whistleblowers.
“I think that’s a bogus argument myself. These people obviously serve at the pleasure of the president,” Cornyn said of Sondland and Vindman. “They don’t have a lifetime tenure.”
Jordain Carney contributed.