U.S. Sen. Rand Paul — who for weeks has been trying to out the whistleblower at the center of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump — said the name of the person alleged to be the tipster during a radio interview despite federal protections meant to prevent retaliation against that person.
Several conservative websites and social media accounts have claimed they have identified the whistleblower and have included that person's name in their posts.
However, the whistleblower's identity has not been revealed or verified publicly, which is why USA TODAY and The Courier Journal are not publishing the person's name.
Trump and some of his Republican supporters, including Paul, recently have been pushing for the name of the whistleblower to be revealed.
The anonymous federal employee has become the subject of intense interest and speculation for disclosing details of a July 2019 phone call in which Trump asked the Ukrainian president to "look into" former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic candidate for the 2020 presidential election, and his son, Hunter Biden.
That information led to the U.S. House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry into Trump's actions, which entered a new phase this week as the first public hearings on the case were held on Capitol Hill.
Federal laws protect whistleblowers from retaliation, which could include identifying the person in question.
But it's not clear what repercussions Paul could face for publicly saying the name of the alleged whistleblower.
People outside the Trump administration, including members of Congress and the public, are likely covered by the First Amendment if they name the person, though civil law guards against libel and slander.
Paul, Kentucky's junior senator, has fiercely defended the president since the inquiry began.
He kicked things up a notch at a Trump rally in Lexington last week, when he demanded that the media print the whistleblower's name.
Trump was in town to support Gov. Matt Bevin on the eve of Kentucky's election, but he spent some of the rally railing against the impeachment inquiry to a basketball arena filled with his fans. (Bevin lost his race for reelection the next day, but he didn't concede until a recanvass was held Thursday.)
At one point during the rally last week, Trump gave Paul a little time at the microphone. And that's when the senator started talking about the alleged whistleblower. But he didn't use a name that night.
"The whistleblower needs to come before Congress as a material witness because he worked for Joe Biden at the same time Hunter Biden was getting money from corrupt oligarchs," Paul said as the president stood nearby. "I say tonight to the media, do your job and print his name."
The crowd cheered. But Paul also was criticized for demanding that the whistleblower be identified publicly.
"I cannot stress enough how wrong and dangerous these efforts are," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week of calls to name the whistleblower.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's other senator, avoided answering questions last week about Paul's comments at the rally and said he would "withhold judgment on the daily revelations" that are reported.
This week, Paul apparently felt comfortable taking matters into his own hands.
During an interview Wednesday on Washington, D.C.-based WMAL, the Kentucky Republican was asked about his remarks at the Trump rally.
One of the interviewers said the name of the alleged whistleblower first, which Paul then repeated. Paul said that person "needs to be pulled in for testimony" to clarify whether they are indeed the whistleblower.
When asked for a comment on Paul's decision to name the alleged whistleblower, Paul's communications team referred The Courier Journal to another interview the senator did Wednesday with One America News Network.
In that interview, Paul said the alleged whistleblower's name once again but clarified that he hasn’t specifically said that this person is, in fact, the whistleblower.
“You know I haven’t actually been alleging or saying that this person is the whistleblower,” he told the television station. “Whether or not he’s the whistleblower, I think will be determined when he comes in to interview.”
Regardless, he said he thinks this individual should be brought in as a “material witness.”
When asked if he thought publicly identifying the whistleblower might be dangerous and could discourage other federal workers from coming forward with concerns in the future, Paul said he does think whistleblowers should be protected.
"I myself have been the victim of political violence," said Paul, who was at a practice for a congressional baseball game in 2017 when U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise was shot by a gunman.
"So I'm aware of political violence, and I think it would be terrible," he said. "I hope nobody will even consider that, but at the same time if you're accused of a crime in our country, the Sixth Amendment says that you get the right to defend yourself and confront your accusers."
Two experts on whistleblower protection law say there's little that Paul did for which he can be punished.
Dan Meyer, an expert on the rules protecting whistleblowers in the intelligence community, said there are essentially no penalties for Paul's actions especially since he repeated a name that the radio host had already revealed.
There’s also no general rule barring most senators from disclosing the name of the whistleblower. The one exception is the Senate Intelligence Committee, Meyer said, but Paul is not a member of the panel.
Robert Litt, who served as the general counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence under President Barack Obama, said it’s unlikely a violation of law.
“There’s no specific law that makes it a crime to reveal the name of a whistleblower, except if you’re the Inspector General to whom the whistleblower made the complaint,” he said.
Besides his comments at the Trump rally and in recent interviews, Paul has used his Senate position to address the controversy surrounding the whistleblower.
Two days after he called on the press to publish the whistleblower's name during the Trump rally, he blocked a Democrat-led attempt to unanimously pass a resolution reasserting the Senate's support for protecting whistleblowers.
He also has introduced a bill of his own that says the president should have the right to confront his accuser in impeachment proceedings.
Paul isn't the only Republican who has suggested Trump should be able to face his accuser. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed back against that notion on Thursday.
"The whistleblower is there to speak truth to power. ... And any retribution or harm coming to a whistleblower undermines our ability to hear truth about power. So I will defend the rights of the whistleblower vehemently," Pelosi said. "Nobody should have the right to endanger whistleblowers. And that is the system that I will defend. And the American people understand that."
A co-counsel for the whistleblower has told USA TODAY that death threats have been directed at his client and attorneys.