Democrats seek to drive wedge between Trump, GOP on whistleblowers

Democrats are seeking to drive a wedge between President TrumpDonald John TrumpComey responds to Trump with Mariah Carey gif: 'Why are you so obsessed with me?' Congress to get election security briefing next month amid Intel drama New York man accused of making death threats against Schumer, Schiff MORE 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerNew York man accused of making death threats against Schumer, Schiff Top GOP super PAC spent money on NC Democrat Hillicon Valley: Intel officials warned lawmakers Russia interfering in 2020 | Pompeo condemns Russian cyberattack on country of Georgia | Tech activists see Kickstarter union as breakthrough | Pentagon agency suffers data breach MORE (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.

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Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, such as Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerCongress to get election security briefing next month amid Intel drama Intel officials warned House lawmakers Russia is interfering to get Trump reelected: NYT Trump officially makes Richard Grenell acting intelligence chief MORE (D-Va.), who represents many federal workers, and Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenGraham: Trump has 'all the legal authority in the world' to pardon Stone Overnight Health Care: Senate panel to hold hearing on US coronavirus response | Dems demand Trump withdraw religious provider rule | Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan backlash Democrats demand Trump administration withdraw religious provider rule MORE (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 HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOvernight Energy: EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Trump budget calls for slashing funds for climate science centers | House Dems urge banks not to fund drilling in Arctic refuge Democratic senators criticize plan that could expand Arctic oil and gas development Senate Dems blast Barr for 'clear violation' of duty in Stone case, urge him to resign MORE (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 RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyProgressives hope Nevada offers roadmap for pro-union 2020 victory Texas woman sentenced for illegal voting faces deportation after parole Trump campaign buys top advertising spot on YouTube for Election Day MORE (R-Utah) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinLawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Overnight Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Senate Democrats pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit MORE (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.

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“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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Overnight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law MORE (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 ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOvernight Health Care: Ernst endorses bipartisan bill to lower drug prices | US partnering with drugmakers on coronavirus vaccine | UN chief says virus poses 'enormous' risks Ernst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Progressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa MORE (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 CornynJohn CornynOcasio-Cortez announces slate of all-female congressional endorsements Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan warnings Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony MORE (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.”

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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 SondlandGordon SondlandTrump aide asked cabinet agencies to identify anti-Trump appointees: report Congress looks to strengthen hand in State Department following impeachment Trump unleashed: President moves with a free hand post-impeachment MORE and booted Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanTrump aide asked cabinet agencies to identify anti-Trump appointees: report More than 1,000 veterans speak out against Trump's 'sustained attacks' on Vindman MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace says she'll 'gladly' vote for Sanders MORE, 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 BidenJoe BidenPoll: Bloomberg stalls after Vegas debate Bloomberg campaign: Vandalism at Tennessee office 'echoes language from the Sanders campaign and its supporters' Democratic strategist says Biden 'has to' get second place in Nevada MORE.

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 ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayBrazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record Conway: Reported sexist Bloomberg remarks 'far worse' than what Trump said on 'Access Hollywood' tape Candidates make electability arguments, talk Bloomberg as focus turns to more diverse states MORE 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.

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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 CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe new American center Democratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump MORE (Maine), who faces a tough reelection in November, and Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonWhistleblower retaliation: Stop confusing unlawful attacks with politics Congress looks to strengthen hand in State Department following impeachment Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony MORE (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.

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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.