The number of anonymous tipsters reporting wrongdoing from inside the federal government has spiked during the Trump presidency, the House Oversight Committee says.
Tricia Newbold set an important mark when she became the first official currently serving in Donald Trump’s White House to take accusations of wrongdoing to Congress—and to put her name publicly behind them.
But Democrats on Capitol Hill say that beyond Newbold, a small army of whistle-blowers from across the government has been working in secret with the House Oversight Committee to report alleged malfeasance inside the Trump administration. Lawmakers and aides are reluctant to discuss information they have gleaned from anonymous government tipsters in detail. But the list of whistle-blowers who either currently or previously worked in the Trump administration, or who worked closely with the administration, numbers in the “dozens,” according to a senior aide from the committee now led by Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland.
The Oversight Committee, like many committees in Congress, has a long history of working with federal whistle-blowers regardless of which party is in charge. Though some come forward publicly, most provide information or leak documents anonymously, helping to lead to investigations and, sometimes, hearings. “It’s entirely proper, and it’s really the point of what the Oversight Committee does,” says former Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, a Republican who headed the panel during the mid-2000s. When he was the chairman of the committee, many whistle-blowers’ reports led nowhere, he says, as they frequently came from “disgruntled employees” or others whose complaints were frivolous. But that was not always the case. Davis recalled, for example, that whistle-blowers were crucial to the investigation that exposed the military’s cover-up of the 2004 friendly-fire incident that killed Army Corporal Pat Tillman, a former NFL star who died fighting in Afghanistan.
Committee veterans told me, however, that the number of whistle-blowers who’ve come forward since Trump became president is far higher than the number who cooperated with the panel during previous administrations. “The biggest difference wasn’t necessarily us switching to the majority; the biggest difference was Donald Trump being elected president,” said the Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the committee’s investigative work. Democrats began hearing from whistle-blowers almost immediately after Trump was sworn in, the aide said, beginning with a report that then–National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had been exchanging text messages with his business partner during the inauguration.
Of the dozens of whistle-blowers Democrats said they are working with, they have publicly confirmed that a handful work in the White House. All but Newbold, however, have come forward on the condition that they remain anonymous. Newbold spoke to the committee as part of its investigation of White House security clearances, and she’s not the only whistle-blower involved in that matter, the panel confirmed in a memo describing her testimony. “Committee staff have spoken with other whistle-blowers who corroborated Ms. Newbold’s account, but they were too afraid about the risk to their careers to come forward publicly,” the memo reads. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Members from both parties interact privately with whistle-blowers, but under a long-standing agreement within the committee, those who want to make on-the-record testimony must agree to be questioned by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Lawmakers conduct investigations and interact with whistle-blowers even when they don’t have the majority. But they have less power to act on information, because they cannot, on their own, issue subpoenas or call hearings. The number of Trump-administration whistle-blowers has already grown now that Democrats are in power and have signaled that they will conduct aggressive oversight of the Trump administration. The committee was receiving about three or four tips a week before the November midterm elections; that has increased to an average of five—and as many as 15—a week in the months since, according to a second committee aide who provided the data on the condition of anonymity.
“I think there are a lot of whistle-blowers out there, or potential whistle-blowers, who are certainly going to feel a lot more comfortable approaching us in the majority than the other side, especially in the Trump administration,” says Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia, the chairman of the Oversight subcommittee with jurisdiction over federal whistle-blower–protection laws.
That was clearly the case with Newbold, a career employee for the past 18 years in the White House personnel-security office. The Oversight Committee disclosed this week that she agreed to come forward publicly to report that senior officials had granted security clearances to 25 people after they were initially denied. Newbold told the committee in a day-long, transcribed interview last month that she had repeatedly reported her concerns to her superiors in the White House and was turning to Congress as her “last hope” for an independent, outside investigation.
Republicans on the committee have accused Cummings of running a “partisan” probe of the security-clearance process, and of cherry-picking from Newbold’s closed-door testimony, which they said was scheduled at the last minute so Republicans wouldn’t have much time to prepare.
Newbold has accused her superiors of repeatedly retaliating against her after she began raising concerns about the clearance process. In October, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that her boss, Carl Kline, would move security files to a higher shelf that she could not reach. (Newbold has a form of dwarfism.) And in January, she was suspended without pay for two weeks soon after NBC News reported that Kline had approved a security clearance for Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, after it was denied by two career security specialists. The NBC story mentioned Newbold’s complaint to the EEOC.
Legislation passed in 1970 and expanded numerous times since protects government whistle-blowers from retaliation. But Democrats say the charges from Trump allies of a “deep state” conspiracy against the president within the federal government—along with reports, including one from an unnamed whistle-blower, that the administration planned to purge the State Department of career civil-service officers deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump—have created a climate of fear among potential whistle-blowers.
“I’ve never seen this many whistle-blowers reporting waste, fraud, and abuse, and just general concern,” the senior Oversight Committee aide told me. “On the flip side of that, I’ve also never seen whistle-blowers so afraid of what could happen to them if somebody finds out who they are.”
At a public committee meeting on Tuesday, Cummings defended his handling of Newbold’s testimony, which he said was taken on a Saturday on short notice at her request because she feared further retaliation at the White House if her planned deposition became public in advance. “I will protect whistle-blowers. Period,” the chairman declared.
Connolly told me that Democrats have more power in the majority to protect whistle-blowers and to ensure that their reports “won’t fall on barren ground.” But, in a nod to the fears that potential whistle-blowers confront, he added this warning: “Nothing’s foolproof, and there’s always a risk.”