On September 27, Federalist co-founder Sean Davis published what first sounded like a major development in the Trump impeachment inquiry. According to Davis, intelligence community members who wished to file a whistleblower complaint were, until recently, “required” to provide firsthand knowledge of alleged wrongdoing. And the whistleblower at the center of the impeachment inquiry -- who alleged that President Donald Trump abused his power by asking a foreign government to investigate a political rival -- had not. The conspiratorial implication was that the rules had been secretly changed by the intelligence community to aid the whistleblower. Unfortunately for Davis, none of this was true.
Davis based his “requirement” claim on changes he declared were recently made to forms available to assist whistleblowers in filing their complaints. But the forms don’t create the requirements, which are instead set in a federal statute that makes no mention of a firsthand knowledge requirement. Furthermore, the whistleblower wrote in their complaint -- which is publicly available for anybody to read -- that they had not witnessed “most of” the wrongdoing, suggesting they actually provided both firsthand and secondhand knowledge. And the Intelligence Community inspector general (ICIG) office later confirmed that the whistleblower had also provided firsthand knowledge. (Also, as a general matter, the firsthand versus secondhand information claim had largely been rendered moot, as documents and statements released by the White House had already confirmed that the whistleblower’s central claims were accurate.)
Davis didn’t have to publish something so demonstrably false. Prior to the publication of his article, Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, reportedly warned Federalist Senior Editor Mollie Hemingway that the form “requirement” claim was a misreading of law after seeing her make the mistake:
Another red flag was the fact that by the time Davis published his article, the ICIG and the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) had both litigated whether the complaint satisfied requirements set by federal law. The ICIG said it did, while OLC said it didn’t. (The OLC’s purpose is to provide legal advice to the president and other executive branch entities.) This back-and-forth between the OLC and the ICIG included no discussion of a “firsthand knowledge” requirement, and instead focused on the actual language of the statute.
Yet Davis published his article anyway and set fire to Trump's defenders in right-wing media and in government. Davis’ false claim appeared on Fox News just hours after it was published and would become a mainstay of the network’s impeachment inquiry coverage. The theory was cited by the president’s lawyer. Trump himself promoted the theory twice on Twitter as a total absolution of wrongdoing, garnering a combined nearly 60,000 retweets:
On Sunday, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the ranking member of the House oversight committee, pushed the claim on CNN’s State of the Union. Host Jake Tapper pushed back, saying, “There's no evidence of that.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) pushed the claim on CBS’ Face the Nation without pushback. Other prominent Republican politicians, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), promoted the false claim on social media.
As Davis continued to promote his story, it became clear he had little understanding of the topic he had written about, or just didn’t care about accuracy. In one instance, Davis promoted an even more conspiratorial version of his original claim floated by an early adopter of the theory that suggested a previous form that had contained a “firsthand knowledge” requirement to file a complaint never even existed at all. Even though changes in forms were the central basis of Davis’ overall claim.
Then on September 30, something remarkable happened. The ICIG released a rare statement that confirmed what many people already knew: Davis was wrong. The main takeaway from the statement was that the statute, not the forms Davis cited, created the requirements for the whistleblower claim: “Although the form requests information about whether the Complainant possesses first-hand knowledge about the matter about which he or she is lodging the complaint, there is no such requirement set forth in the statute.” Significantly, the ICIG statement also noted that the Trump-Ukraine whistleblower had actually used the old version of the form, rendering even further moot Davis’ misrepresentations of the form’s purpose and authority.
This development presented Davis with two choices: admit that the report he authored that was so widely circulated it reached the president was wrong, or humiliate himself by insisting that he was still correct.
Davis chose to humiliate himself. Shortly after the ICIG statement was released, Davis sent a tweet brazenly and falsely claiming that the statement offered “complete vindication” of his claims:
It was clear that Davis was lying at this point -- and also moving the goal posts. His claim of vindication stems from the fact that the ICIG statement does indicate that some changes have been made to the form. But the primary problem with Davis’ article is that he claimed the forms created a “requirement” for whistleblowers, something that does not and never has existed.
Davis then made a similar claim while appearing on Fox Business. After a rambling introduction of the issue by Lou Dobbs, Davis again claimed that he had been “completely vindicated” by the ICIG:
Davis has continued to make embarrassing mistakes in his attempts to claim vindication. Lately, he has been trying to make hay of the fact that the whistleblower checked a box on the form indicating that they had firsthand knowledge, even though they provided only secondhand knowledge, citing the claims of Jason Beale, who has written for The Federalist.
But the whistleblower submitted both firsthand and secondhand information -- as the ICIG statement explains: “The whistleblower stated on the form that he or she possessed both first-hand and other information. The ICIG reviewed the information provided as well as other information gathered and determined that the complaint was both urgent and that it appeared credible.” That’s the same statement that Davis says totally vindicates him.