WASHINGTON (CN) — Republican lawmakers edged ever closer to the line of outing a whistleblower within the Senate chamber on Thursday, inspiring a rare rebuke from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Whether Congress members violate federal whistleblower protections by outing one — in or out of session — has been a previously obscure legal controversy, thrust into the national debate by a senator bent on testing it.
The offending question came from Senator Rand Paul, who included the alleged identity of the official whose confidential complaint set in motion a cascade of events that made President Donald Trump the third impeached commander-in-chief in U.S. history.
After Chief Justice Roberts declined to read Paul's question aloud after several seconds of silent rumination, the Kentucky Republican stood up and exited the chamber.
The chief justice did not censure Senator Paul verbally, but his silence spoke volumes. It was the first time in two weeks of the impeachment trial that Roberts barred a senator or attorney from making a statement.
In a tweet, Kentucky Republican confirmed his attempt to blow the whistleblower’s cover.
“My question today is about whether or not individuals who were holdovers from the Obama National Security Council and Democrat partisans conspired with Schiff staffers to plot impeaching the President before there were formal House impeachment proceedings,” Paul wrote.
If a Republican senator succeeded in identifying the alleged whistleblower, Democrats already have raised the possibility of seeking sanctions.
“I think a disclosure of a whistleblower would contain legal issues,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Courthouse News on Wednesday.
“On the floor of the Senate, there would be some degree of immunity,” Blumenthal acknowledged. “Certainly under our ethics rules, there will be potential consequences, and I would ask the chief justice to immediately intervene and perhaps apply sanctions. It would be unprecedented.”
Bradley Moss, a Washington-based national security attorney, told Courthouse News on Thursday he thought the maneuver by Senator Paul was altogether unseemly.
“There is no legitimate reason why any senator should be trying to smear, let alone potentially expose, a federally protected whistleblower,” Moss said. "The senator’s actions today were beneath the dignity of his office."
John Tye, a former State Department official who worked on matters related to internet freedom from 2011 to 2014, blew the whistle on the department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, citing concerns about Fourth Amendment violations occurring in light of the government's electronic surveillance practices.
Tye, now CEO of Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit organization that connects whistleblowers with attorneys, described the move by Paul as reckless and intended to “distract and intimidate, not educate.”
The whistleblower’s complaint has been fully verified, Tye noted, including by the Trump administration itself.
"Ongoing attacks on whistleblowers and whistleblower protections risk creating a chilling effect that will undermine government oversight and our system of checks and balances,” Tye said.
Before the impeachment trial began, legal observers largely expected Chief Justice Roberts to take a subdued role over the proceedings, preserving the Supreme Court’s reputation from the political fray.
“The chief justice in terms of actual decisional authority is a potted plant,” University of Missouri law professor Frank Bowman, the author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,” told Courthouse News before trial began.