Whistleblowers and the cacophonous sounds of America

This article features our client Dawn Wooten and was originally published here.

A YEAR AGO TODAY, the Washington Post reported details about a whistleblower complaint filed from someone in the US intelligence community, vague word of which had been swirling below the news cycle for days: Trump had made a “troubling” promise to a foreign leader. The Post’s story accelerated a media-wide rush to find out more; soon, we learned that the leader in question was Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, and that Trump had asked him to investigate Hunter Biden, son of Joe. After four months, those revelations culminated in Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives and acquittal in the Senate.

In hindsight, that was a quieter time. During the past week alone, we’ve learned details of three whistleblower complaints alleging misconduct across the Trump administration. First, we found out that Brian Murphy, a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, filed a complaint claiming that he was told to suppress and/or doctor intelligence reports—on Russian interference, domestic white supremacy, and other urgent matters—that risked contradicting Trump’s political priorities. (Murphy, it should be noted, was recently removed from his post atop a DHS office that compiled intelligence reports on journalists; former officials told the Post that Murphy was a “poor manager,” but confirmed that the substance of his complaint is valid.) Then Dawn Wooten, a nurse at a privately-run ICE detention facility in Georgia, revealed that she filed a complaint alleging that the facility recklessly mismanaged COVID-19 cases and subjected Spanish-speaking female detainees to hysterectomies—frequently, and possibly without their informed consent. (Her account has been corroborated, including by The Intercept.)

Yesterday, the Post reported a claim by Adam D. DeMarco, a major in the DC National Guard, who gave whistleblower testimony about the decision to violently clear peaceful protesters outside the White House, in June, when Trump staged a photo-op with a Bible. Hours before Trump took a step toward Lafayette Square, DeMarco said, federal officials had been stockpiling ammunition and seeking weapons—including a “heat ray” designed to make targets feel as if their skin is on fire—that have repeatedly been deemed inappropriate for use in war zones.

Also yesterday, we learned of two other claims—not from whistleblowers per se, but disturbing just the same. In an interview with The Guardian’s Lucy Osborne, Amy Dorris, a former model, alleged that Trump sexually assaulted her in 1997 at the US Open. Several sources confirmed that Dorris told them about the alleged assault at the time or subsequently. Dorris is at least the twenty-fourth woman to have accused Trump of sexual misconduct; E. Jean Carroll, an advice columnist, has accused him of rape. Later in the day, Olivia Troye—a former aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and who served on the White House’s coronavirus task force—said that Trump’s response to the virus was guided primarily by reelection concerns; she alleged that the president said the pandemic could be a “good thing” if it stopped him from having to shake hands with “disgusting people”—an apparent reference to his supporters.

Given their dizzying pace, it’s hard to keep all these revelations in mind—let alone prominently in the news cycle—at once. This time, there will be no impeachment inquiry to hang the reporting around. Yesterday, when I flicked over from CNN, where Wolf Blitzer was discussing Troye’s remarks, to MSNBC, it took me a while to realize that they weren’t discussing the same story, but rather the Post’s coverage of DeMarco and heat rays. Stephen Colbert put it well: “The news can be depressing these days,” he tweeted, “so take a mental wellness break from reading about how the president sexually assaulted someone to read about how he tried to use a heat ray against his own citizens.” Not that either of those stories is conspicuous on many major news homepages this morning. We may already have moved on.

There’s also the stuff that Trump says and does publicly, wrenching the attention of the news cycle. Yesterday, at the National Archives museum, he condemned the 1619 Project—a major New York Times Magazine initiative that aims to root the American story in the history of slavery. An important part of the 1619 Project is educational material, which Trump called “ideological poison.” He also referred to the teaching of critical race theory as “a form of child abuse, in the truest sense of those words.” The speech was surreal (I, for one, did not have “Howard Zinn” marked on my Trump-insult bingo card) and part of his effort to reframe the election campaign around conservative theories of the past, since things aren’t going so well in the present.

Amid the swirl of reports about Trump’s insults and abuses, we must try and keep a sustained spotlight on testimony that credibly alleges the abuse of human rights, especially when such abuses are ongoing. The ICE story, in particular, must not fall victim to the fleetingness of our outrage. The institutional racism and violence there, worsened by Trump, will outlast him. Come election day, and the days after, we must remember what America has done.