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Democrats seek to drive wedge between Trump, GOP on whistleblowers

Democrats are seeking to drive a wedge between President TrumpDonald TrumpGaetz was denied meeting with Trump: CNN Federal Reserve chair: Economy would have been 'so much worse' without COVID-19 relief bills Police in California city declare unlawful assembly amid 'white lives matter' protest 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 SchumerChuck SchumerNY Times beclowns itself by normalizing court-packing 'to balance the conservative majority' The first Southern state legalizes marijuana — what it means nationally H.R. 1/S. 1: Democrats defend their majorities, not honest elections 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 WarnerA bold fix for US international taxation of corporations Democrats offer competing tax ideas on Biden infrastructure Five ways an obscure Senate ruling could change Washington MORE (D-Va.), who represents many federal workers, and Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenThe first Southern state legalizes marijuana — what it means nationally A bold fix for US international taxation of corporations Democrats offer competing tax ideas on Biden infrastructure 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 HollenLawmakers struggle with Capitol security after latest attack Democrats torn on Biden's bipartisan pledge Democrats wrestle over tax hikes for infrastructure 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 RomneyTwo sheriff's deputies shot by gunman in Utah Romney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS On management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process MORE (R-Utah) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBiden to meet Monday with bipartisan lawmakers about infrastructure Biden is thinking about building that wall — and that's a good thing Buttigieg on exaggerated infrastructure jobs estimate: 'I should have been more precise' 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyNumber of migrants detained at southern border reaches 15-year high: reports Grassley, Cornyn push for Senate border hearing The Hill's Morning Report - GOP pounces on Biden's infrastructure plan 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 ErnstTrump faces test of power with early endorsements GOP looks to squeeze Biden, Democrats on border Blackburn introduces bill to require migrant DNA testing at border 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 CornynOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Dakota Access pipeline to remain in operation despite calls for shutdown | Biden hopes to boost climate spending by B | White House budget proposes .4B for environmental justice 2024 GOP White House hopefuls lead opposition to Biden Cabinet Number of migrants detained at southern border reaches 15-year high: reports 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 SondlandAmerica's practice of 'pay-to-play' ambassadors is no joke Graham's 'impeach Kamala' drumbeat will lead Republicans to a 2022 defeat GOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' MORE and booted Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanVindman says he doesn't regret testimony against Trump Esper: If my replacement is 'a real yes man' then 'God help us' Ukrainian president whose call with Trump sparked impeachment congratulates Biden 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 BidenFederal Reserve chair: Economy would have been 'so much worse' without COVID-19 relief bills Biden to meet Monday with bipartisan lawmakers about infrastructure Jill Biden gives shout out to Champ, Major on National Pet Day 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 ConwayThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Let's make a deal on infrastructure, taxes The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Pence sets the stage for 2024 Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet 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 Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate MORE (Maine), who faces a tough reelection in November, and Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements Trump endorses Rand Paul for reelection 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.