The man Donald Trump Jr. and other prominent Republicans accused this week of being the whistleblower who sparked the impeachment inquiry has been a right-wing target since 2017 — when he was accused by a pro-Trump media personality of being “pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia” and leaking damaging information about the administration.
Trump Jr.’s tweet naming the CIA officer and former National Security Council staffer came days after a Trump rally in Kentucky on Monday, where Republican Sen. Rand Paul called on Republicans in Capitol Hill to subpoena former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as the whistleblower. Paul — who did not say the name — demanded the media print the purported whistleblower’s name.
Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz has also recently tweeted the name.
Asked by BuzzFeed News on Tuesday how he knew the whistleblower’s name, Paul pointed to an Oct. 30 report on Real Clear Investigations, written by the conservative writer Paul Sperry. “The person that [Real Clear Investigations] named, that person was in the White House under Obama, did work for Joe Biden, and was there at the time Hunter Biden was being paid $50,000 per month by a Ukrainian oligarch. There are material questions regardless of his involvement as a whistleblower,” said Paul.
The whistleblower’s lawyers said in a statement that “identifying any suspected name for the whistleblower will place that individual and their family at risk of serious harm. We will not confirm or deny any name that is published or promoted by supporters of the president.”
“We will note, however, that publication or promotion of a name shows the desperation to deflect from the substance of the whistleblower complaint. It will not relieve the President of the need to address the substantive allegations, all of which have been substantially proven to be true,” added the whistleblower’s lawyers.
In the story, Real Clear Investigations named a 33-year-old former National Security Council staffer as the whistleblower. The person is a registered Democrat who worked for the Obama administration. The staffer left the White House in the summer of 2017 and currently works for the CIA.
The story, which has been shared over 15,000 times on Facebook, also connects the former NSC staffer to Ukrainian American Democratic National Committee contractor Alexandra Chalupa, a central figure in the Spygate conspiracy theory that claims Democrats conspired with Ukrainian nationals to frame the president’s campaign for collusion to delegitimize his 2016 election.
“Real Clear Investigations is disclosing the name because of the public’s interest in learning details of an effort to remove a sitting president from office,” the report reads.
But the story doesn’t offer evidence that the NSC staffer is actually the whistleblower — instead, it speculates that his profile fits the broad description and that his name “has been raised privately in impeachment depositions” by Republicans who have been trying to determine the whistleblower’s identity.
BuzzFeed News does not know the identity of the whistleblower. The New York Times reported that the whistleblower is a CIA officer previously detailed to the White House with expertise on Ukraine.
The long history of right-wing focus on the staffer reflects the extent to which the incident at the heart of the impeachment inquiry is simply the latest episode in a geopolitical drama that has blended personality-driven White House infighting with deep differences over US policy toward Eastern Europe.
One of the first big right-wing influencers to go after the former NSC staffer was pro-Trump media personality Mike Cernovich. In a Medium post in July 2017, he cited unnamed sources in accusing the then–NSC staffer, who at the time was working for then–national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, of being “pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia.”
Cernovich’s Medium piece was published at a moment when right-wing websites and message boards were scrambling for evidence that could counter reports that Russian hackers had meddled in the 2016 US presidential election. In March 2017, 4chan and Reddit users circulated a conspiracy theory that American cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike helped the DNC cover up evidence that the Democrats had tried to frame the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election. By April 2017, President Trump mentioned the theory in an interview with the AP.
Trump Jr.’s tweet, Paul’s and Gaetz’s comments, and the Real Clear Investigations story are further escalations in a right-wing information war against the whistleblower. Radicalized communities on Reddit and 4chan, conservative influencers on Twitter and YouTube, and hyperpartisan news sites like Breitbart and the Gateway Pundit have demanded the whistleblower’s identity be revealed since the impeachment inquiry began in September.
But in the last month, many of these communities have decided that they already know who the anonymous source is, claiming he is one and the same as the former NSC staffer whom Cernovich focused attention on in 2017.
John Tye, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit law firm Whistleblower Aid who is working with the anonymous whistleblower’s lawyers at the Compass Rose Legal Group, told BuzzFeed News that Paul’s remarks were irresponsible.
“That’s totally irrelevant to the conduct that’s been disclosed here. What should matter are the facts of what happened with US foreign policy,” said Tye.
While Cernovich’s Medium account has since been taken down for violating the platform’s guidelines, the Facebook post he used to share it is still available and today is full of recently posted comments congratulating him on finding the whistleblower. Cernovich declined to share why he decided to write about the former NSC staffer in 2017 but told BuzzFeed News he felt vindicated by the recent coverage.
“I do think it’s funny that people said that the time I made claims about leaking ‘without evidence,’ but now everyone admits (assuming he’s the whistleblower) that he was indeed sharing information,” Cernovich said.
Cernovich’s Medium piece, according to an analysis conducted by BuzzFeed News of Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter from 2017 to 2018, was the only notable story claiming a connection between the former NSC staffer and conspiracy theories about Ukraine.
In days since the Real Clear Investigations piece, however, the name spread, pushed by far-right influencers like Jack Posobiec, Benny Johnson, Rush Limbaugh, and Sebastian Gorka. One America News Network, the news channel at which Posobiec is a host, has circulated the name. And according to social metrics site BuzzSumo, websites like Breitbart and the Gateway Pundit have had thousands of engagements around stories that include the name.
The name is also now all over 4chan and Reddit — which has strict rules on sharing personal information.
One 4chan post about Paul’s comments Monday has close to a thousand responses, full of personal information about the man the users accused of being the whistleblower.
Reddit has not returned a request for comment.
Content featuring the man’s name has received thousands of engagements on Facebook — and there are also pages promoting the conspiracy theory via boosted ad posts. According to Facebook’s ad library, there are two active and four inactive ad campaigns on the platform that include the man’s name and face. A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that on Wednesday the platform had taken down those ads.
“Any mention of the potential whistleblower’s name violates our coordinating harm policy, which prohibits content ‘outing of witness, informant, or activist.’ We are removing any and all mentions of the potential whistleblower’s name and will revisit this decision should their name be widely published in the media or used by public figures in debate,” the Facebook spokesperson said.
On Friday, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed that they would be removing the name from the entire platform. Public content and links including the name were still available on the platform.
“If the wrong person is named, if an unrelated person is named, that’s bringing the possibility of physical harm and threats against someone who’s not involved at all. It’s a reckless thing to do, to publish the name,” Tye said.
Tye added that attempts to disclose the whistleblower’s identity could dissuade others in the future from coming forward: “As we’ve seen with other whistleblowers, people are able to maintain their anonymity, and that’s what should happen here until they’re ready to come forward.”
“Clearly this person’s safety is a real concern, and we need to do everything we can protect that person,” Tye said.
With additional reporting by Paul McLeod.