Last Thursday, Sean Davis of the conservative news site The Federalist broke an explosive revelation. The Intelligence Community had secretly changed a requirement in its whistle-blower statute to allow whistle-blowers to report secondhand allegations, whereas firsthand knowledge had been required before. This suspicious rule change allegedly allowed the whistle-blower to accuse President Trump of misconduct despite lacking firsthand knowledge of said conduct. The shocking exposure of yet another Deep State plot quickly became the foundation for Trump’s defenders as they fanned out across the media.
“The hearsay rule was changed just a short period of time before the complaint was filed,” claimed Senator Lindsey Graham. The whistle-blower “has no firsthand knowledge,” charged Congressman Jim Jordan on CNN, and when host Jake Tapper noted that firsthand knowledge is not required to file a complaint, Jordan shot back that this was only “because they changed the form. You used to.” Meanwhile, Trump demanded, in all caps, “WHO CHANGED THE LONG STANDING WHISTLEBLOWER RULES JUST BEFORE SUBMITTAL OF THE FAKE WHISTLEBLOWER REPORT?”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed, “Just days before the Ukraine whistleblower came forward, the IC secretly removed that requirement from the complaint form,” and promised that Republicans would “not rest until we have answers.”
They had answers. They just didn’t like them. Actual experts in intelligence law immediately pointed out that Davis’s reporting was false and was based on a simple misreading of a change in the wording of a form.
Then yesterday, the Intelligence Community’s inspector general, Trump appointee Michael Atkinson, posted a short statement online correcting Davis. Using heavily bureaucratized language and the patient and polite tone city officials use to assure the local gadfly that the water department is not sending alien nodes through his plumbing, the I.G. made a few basic points. First, the rules governing whistle-blowers have not changed. At all.
Second, the I.G. had developed a new form for whistle-blowers to use to file their complaints because the old form may have been confusing. (“[C]ertain language in those forms and, more specifically, the informational materials accompanying the forms, could be read — incorrectly — as suggesting that whistleblowers must possess first-hand information.”) That’s the change Davis seized upon — a clarification of the wording in the submission form, not a change in the requirement.
Third, Atkinson noted that the entire issue is moot because the Trump whistle-blower did have firsthand knowledge. (“The whistleblower stated on the form that he or she possessed both first-hand and other information.”) So no, the law was not changed to allow complaints without firsthand knowledge. And no, this wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because the whistle-blower did have firsthand knowledge.
In a rational world, The Federalist would be publishing mortified corrections and Republicans would be engaged in soul-searching as to how such a simplistic fallacy had gained credence at the highest levels of their party. In a world where the conservative movement had at least some slight attachment to reality, the Federalistas would be quietly slinking away and changing the subject.
But in the actual world, they are continuing to insist they were right all along. The Federalist reporting team has not even developed its own alternative sources. Instead, they are plucking out sentences from the I.G. report that was written to correct their errors and claiming them as vindication.
No! The letter says that the form changed but the requirement did not change. The HOW INTERESTING change is that the I.G. was trying to correct the confusion being spread by right-wing pseudo-journalists and clarified the language in a form, but the underlying requirements to submit a complaint did not change. Also, again, the whistle-blower did have firsthand knowledge, so even if the requirement had been weakened, it would not have had any relevance to this matter.
It’s probably better that Trump’s defenders simply claim the I.G. supports their erroneous stance, because the actual alternative would be for them to decide Atkinson is in cahoots with the Deep State cabal and have him fired and replaced with somebody from Fox News.