Be­hind the mask

Don­ald Trump Jr., oth­ers cir­cu­late sup­posed iden­tity on so­cial me­dia

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ISAAC STAN­LEY- BECKER AND CRAIG TIMBERG isaac.stan­ley­[email protected]­post.com [email protected]­post.com Shane Har­ris and Greg Jaffe con­tributed to this re­port.

Trump al­lies mar­shal on­line army in bid to out the whistle­blower.

Tweets on Wed­nes­day by Don­ald Trump Jr. capped more than a month of ef­forts by Pres­i­dent Trump’s al­lies to sur­face the sup­posed name of a whistle­blower whose com­plaint about a July 25 phone call led to the House’s impeachmen­t in­quiry.

Most news or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing The Wash­ing­ton Post, have with­held the name of the whistle­blower, whose com­plaint about Trump’s call with Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­sky has been largely con­firmed by diplomats and oth­ers with first­hand knowl­edge as well as by a re­con­structed tran­script re­leased by the White House. The whistle­blower’s name has been kept con­fi­den­tial by U.S. of­fi­cials, in line with fed­eral law de­signed to pre­vent re­tal­i­a­tion.

But the sup­posed name of the whistle­blower has been cir­cu­lat­ing in con­ser­va­tive cor­ners of so­cial me­dia since at least Oct. 3, cul­mi­nat­ing in Trump Jr.’s Wed­nes­day morn­ing retweet of a Bre­it­bart News ar­ti­cle that named an in­di­vid­ual. Dur­ing one 24-hour pe­riod last week, the CIA of­fi­cer’s name was men­tioned in more than 150,000 tweets.

The same of­fi­cer has also been the sub­ject of an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign on Face­book, fi­nanced by, among oth­ers, a North Carolina busi­ness­man whose Face­book page is aimed at Christian users. The ads, in which the sup­posed name of the whistle­blower ap­peared, were viewed sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand times be­fore Face­book re­moved them Wed­nes­day in re­sponse to a query from The Post.

The cam­paign on so­cial me­dia to out the whistle­blower, who has le­gal pro­tec­tion from re­tal­i­a­tion, in­ten­si­fied as Trump and his al­lies in Con­gress ramped up their calls for the in­di­vid­ual to be iden­ti­fied. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY.) de­manded at a Trump rally on Mon­day that main­stream news or­ga­ni­za­tions pro­vide a name. These calls were quoted in tweets from Rus­sian state me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions RT and Sput­nik.

The Web-en­abled ef­fort to iden­tify the whistle­blower il­lus­trates the abil­ity of Trump and his al­lies to use an army of con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors and so­cial me­dia provo­ca­teurs to spread the pres­i­dent’s ver­sion of events and combat his crit­ics. Trump dis­played his will­ing­ness to or­ga­nize these foot sol­diers at his “so­cial me­dia sum­mit” over the sum­mer, to which many of the same com­men­ta­tors were in­vited.

Trump has called for the whistle­blower to be outed, say­ing he has a right to “meet my ac­cuser.” But if Trump be­lieves the out­lets that he pro­motes, he al­ready knows his ac­cuser’s name.

The paid Face­book posts in par­tic­u­lar alarmed whistle­blower ad­vo­cates. An at­tor­ney for the whistle­blower, who de­clined to name his client, said Face­book and oth­ers have an eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect “those who law­fully ex­pose sus­pected gov­ern­ment wrong­do­ing.”

“This is par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant in this case where I have made it clear time and time again that re­port­ing any sus­pected name for the whistle­blower will place that in­di­vid­ual and their fam­ily at risk of se­ri­ous harm,” said the at­tor­ney, An­drew P. Bakaj. “To that end, I am deeply trou­bled with Face­book seek­ing to profit from ad­ver­tis­ing that would place some­one in harm’s way. This, frankly, is at the pin­na­cle of ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity and is in­ten­tion­ally reck­less.”

Bakaj, in a let­ter to the White House dated Thurs­day, de­manded that Trump stop call­ing for the pub­li­ca­tion of the whistle­blower’s iden­tity and al­leged that his “reck­less and dan­ger­ous” com­ments al­ready had in­tim­i­dated the whistle­blower. “Let me be clear: should any harm be­fall any sus­pected named whistle­blower or their fam­ily, the blame will rest squarely with your client,” said the let­ter, ad­dressed to Pat Cipol­lone, coun­sel to the pres­i­dent, and copied to con­gres­sional lead­ers. The let­ter was first pub­lished by CNN and con­firmed by The Post.

The per­son named in Trump Jr.’s tweets — as well as in the ar­ti­cles he am­pli­fied — did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. A spokesman for the pres­i­dent’s el­der son, An­drew Sura­bian, when asked by The Post about Trump Jr.’s posts, cited his sev­eral tweets on the sub­ject, in­clud­ing one not­ing pre­vi­ous on­line con­ver­sa­tion about the whistle­blower’s sup­posed name and ex­press­ing sur­prise about the con­tro­versy on Wed­nes­day. “Are they go­ing to pre­tend that his name hasn’t been in the pub­lic do­main for weeks now?” Trump Jr. tweeted.

Far-right In­ter­net per­son­al­i­ties with ties to the pres­i­dent have la­bored to give cre­dence to claims about the whistle­blower’s iden­tity, which has been the sub­ject of spec­u­la­tion on the Web since the first days af­ter de­tails of the com­plaint be­came pub­lic.

Jack Poso­biec — a Trump supporter who pushed the de­bunked Piz­za­gate con­spir­acy the­ory that prom­i­nent Demo­cratic politi­cians were in­volved in a child sex abuse ring and is now a correspond­ent for the con­ser­va­tive One Amer­ica News Net­work — tweeted the name of the CIA of­fi­cer on Oct. 3, two weeks af­ter el­e­ments of the whistle­blower’s com­plaint be­came pub­lic.

Poso­biec said his ini­tial men­tion of the CIA of­fi­cer’s name, sug­gest­ing it “sounds like” that per­son was the whistle­blower, was an ed­u­cated guess based on what he had read in a New York Times ar­ti­cle and on back­ground Poso­biec al­ready knew about sev­eral peo­ple sus­pected of be­ing the whistle­blower. The Times ar­ti­cle, pub­lished on Sept. 26, car­ried the head­line, “Whis­tle-blower Is a C.I.A. Of­fi­cer Who Was De­tailed to the White House.”

“You could pretty much read between the lines,” Poso­biec said.

His ini­tial ref­er­ence drew some im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion. But Poso­biec’s reach paled next to the tor­rent that came when other ac­counts, in­clud­ing that of con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor Di­nesh D’souza, men­tioned the same name on Twit­ter. One ac­count, @Gre­gru­bini, tweeted the same CIA of­fi­cer’s name more than 20 times.

The push on Twit­ter in­ten­si­fied last week, when an ar­ti­cle ap­peared on Real clear in­ves­ti­ga­tions, which is backed by foun­da­tions as­so­ci­ated with con­ser­va­tive causes, in­clud­ing the Ed Uih­lein Fam­ily Foun­da­tion and the Sarah Scaife Foun­da­tion. The ar­ti­cle, by the con­ser­va­tive au­thor Paul Sperry, whose books in­clude “In­fil­tra­tion: How Mus­lim Spies and Sub­ver­sives Have Pen­e­trated Wash­ing­ton,” made a de­tailed ar­gu­ment that the in­di­vid­ual was the whistle­blower.

The ar­ti­cle elab­o­rated on claims about the whistle­blower’s iden­tity that Sperry made in a tweet that had prompted Poso­biec’s ini­tial of­fer of a name Oct. 3. Sperry’s tweet in­cluded claims about the in­di­vid­ual’s par­ti­san af­fil­i­a­tion and the tim­ing of his as­sign­ments that weren’t in the Times ar­ti­cle.

The steep climb in Twit­ter ref­er­ences to the named per­son peaked the day af­ter the Real clear in­ves­ti­ga­tions ar­ti­cle’ s pub­li­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Dar­ren Linvill, an as­so­ciate professor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Clem­son Univer­sity.

The pres­i­dent retweeted talk ra­dio host Mark Levin over the week­end, shar­ing a Bre­it­bart ar­ti­cle that in­cluded the pur­ported name of the whistle­blower. That move de­lighted Trump’s sup­port­ers, but it was his el­der son’s de­ci­sion to more clearly in­clude the name in his own tweet — and to dou­ble down on the de­ci­sion in sub­se­quent posts — that gave the on­line cru­sade a sense of vic­tory.

“KABOOM! Don­ald Trump Jr. Tweets Name Of Whistle­blower,” the right-wing web­site Gate­way Pun­dit cel­e­brated.

Mike Roth­schild, a re­searcher whose book de­bunk­ing ma­jor con­spir­acy the­o­ries is sched­uled to be pub­lished in Jan­uary, said the Real clear in­ves­ti­ga­tions story was a turn­ing point be­cause it pro­vided a false air of au­thor­ity.

The pursuit of the whistle­blower’s iden­tity il­lu­mi­nated how a “com­mu­nity that be­lieves Don­ald Trump can do no wrong” has melded with a “big con­spir­acy the­ory com­mu­nity,” Roth­schild said. Vin­di­ca­tion of their claims could end up so­lid­i­fy­ing their fan base, he said, not­ing that prom­i­nent pur­vey­ors of the Qanon con­spir­acy the­ory jumped on the band­wagon, along with doggedly pro-Trump pun­dits. To­gether, these com­mu­ni­ties project enor­mous in­flu­ence on­line, in part through fol­low­ings that ex­perts think are sprin­kled with in­au­then­tic ac­counts con­trolled by au­to­mated soft­ware.

“When these cranks start spread­ing this around, it gains cre­dence be­cause so many peo­ple share it,” Roth­schild said. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to get out.”

Tom Kuntz, the ed­i­tor of RealClear in­ves­ti­ga­tions, de­fended the de­ci­sion to pub­lish the name, say­ing, “We ag­gre­gate in­ves­tiga­tive news across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, and when we see gaps, we look at them and de­cide whether to go af­ter them.”

He de­clined to say whether Sperry had seized on the name be­cause of his back-and-forth with Poso­biec on Oct. 3, say­ing Sperry had cred­i­ble sources and also re­lied on re­port­ing from other out­lets, in­clud­ing the Times, which “wrote a long piece go­ing into de­tail about him about a month ago, say­ing he was a CIA an­a­lyst, blah blah blah,” Kuntz said. The Times didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment about its Sept. 26 ar­ti­cle.

Kris Co­ratti, a spokes­woman for The Post, said: “The Wash­ing­ton Post has long re­spected the right of whistle­blow­ers to re­port wrong­do­ing in con­fi­dence, which pro­tects them against re­tal­i­a­tion. We also with­hold iden­ti­ties or other facts when we be­lieve that pub­li­ca­tion would put an in­di­vid­ual at risk. Both of those con­sid­er­a­tions ap­ply in this case.”

The in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer named as the sup­posed whistle­blower pre­vi­ously had been a tar­get for far-right provo­ca­teurs, who ac­cused him in sum­mer 2017 of leak­ing anti-trump news. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Re­pub­li­can and Trump loy­al­ist, men­tioned his name last month dur­ing a con­gres­sional hear­ing fo­cus­ing on Puerto Rico. He was press­ing Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter and now ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fi­nan­cial Over­sight and Man­age­ment Board for Puerto Rico, to dis­cuss con­spir­acy the­o­ries about Ukraine’s in­volve­ment in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

As Trump and his al­lies in­ten­si­fied their calls for the whistle­blower to be iden­ti­fied, some groups on Face­book as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity for ful­fill­ing the pres­i­dent’s de­mands, pub­lish­ing the name not only on their own pages but also en­list­ing Face­book’s paid pro­mo­tion tools to get the in­di­vid­ual’s name in front of hun­dreds of thou­sands of users who may not have sought out such con­tent on their own.

Face­book’s ini­tial ac­cep­tance of the ads, some of which had been pub­lished last month, could in­flame crit­i­cism of the plat­form, which has come un­der scru­tiny for spread­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion, threats and hate speech, as well as per­mit­ting politi­cians to lie in their ads.

“If the ads are meant to in­tim­i­date and ha­rass and threaten peo­ple, that would be wrong, and it might be il­le­gal,” said John N. Tye, a for­mer State Depart­ment of­fi­cial who be­came a whistle­blower in 2014 and later founded the non­profit Whistle­blower Aid, which has been sup­port­ing the le­gal team work­ing with the in­di­vid­u­als in the Ukraine case. “Cer­tainly if it were be­ing com­mer­cial­ized, get­ting paid to par­tic­i­pate in that would be wrong,” Tye said.

A Face­book spokesman said all of the ads iden­ti­fied by The Post were be­ing re­moved.

“Any men­tion of the po­ten­tial whistle­blower’s name vi­o­lates our co­or­di­nat­ing harm pol­icy, which pro­hibits con­tent ‘ outing of wit­ness, in­for­mant or ac­tivist,’ ” the spokesman, Andy Stone, said.

A North Carolina busi­ness­man and failed con­gres­sional can­di­date, Tim D’an­nun­zio, gained as many as 200,000 im­pres­sions on a pair of ads that pro­vided the sup­posed name of the whistle­blower. He pro­moted the posts us­ing a per­sonal page ti­tled “Mes­sage,” tar­get­ing “peo­ple who are Christian-re­lated, who have Christian in­ter­ests,” he said in an in­ter­view.

D’an­nun­zio said he first came across the name of the sup­posed whistle­blower in a Gate­way Pun­dit ar­ti­cle. “And then it started to pop up in other places, where it’s ob­vi­ous he’s the guy,” he said.

One of D’an­nun­zio’s ads, viewed as many as 150,000 times, pro­vided the sup­posed whistle­blower’s full name and links to the Real clear in­ves­ti­ga­tions ar­ti­cle. “Impeachmen­t is an­other setup,” the ad claimed. The other post, viewed as many as 50,000 times, sim­i­larly pro­vided the name.

D’an­nun­zio, who said he owns sev­eral sky­div­ing busi­nesses, gained those views for about $1,000, ac­cord­ing to Face­book’s ad ar­chive.

An­other ad, placed by a group called Arab Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive, gained as many as 6,000 views, mostly from users older than 50 in a hand­ful of po­lit­i­cally po­tent states, in­clud­ing Penn­syl­va­nia, Ohio, Michi­gan and Florida. The in­di­vid­ual thought to man­age the page didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. An at­tor­ney in Texas also pro­moted a post re­veal­ing the name of the sup­posed whistle­blower and call­ing him an “il­le­gal SPY.”

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Don­ald Trump Jr., pic­tured with Kim­berly Guil­foyle, was among many of the pres­i­dent’s sup­port­ers to cir­cu­late the sup­posed name of the Ukraine whistle­blower. For video, visit wapo.st/whistle­blower.

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