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Did Rand Paul betray libertarians?

The senator was once dubbed “the most exciting figure in politics” for libertarians. Now he’s one of Trump’s biggest allies. Why?

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., leaves the Senate floor after a vote in the Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call

In 2014, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told an audience at an event in Florida that the Whistleblower Protection Act should be expanded to include government contractors like former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Paul repeated the view in a 2015 speech on the Senate floor in which he praised whistleblowers who had come forward to tell America that the NSA was collecting phone records on a mass scale as part of the Patriot Act — which Paul called “the most unpatriotic of acts.”

But in 2019, Paul seems to feel differently about whistleblowers, at least the individual whose complaint kicked off House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

At a rally for Trump’s 2020 campaign in Kentucky last Monday, Paul said, “We also now know the name of the whistleblower. I say tonight to the media, ‘Do your job and print his name!’” He’s argued on Twitter that not only is it essential to reveal the name of the whistleblower but also that to not do so would be a violation of Trump’s Sixth Amendment right to face his accuser.

But in Paul’s view, the two perspectives make total sense, as does his unwavering support for Trump, whose presidency has pushed a number of libertarians out of the Republican Party altogether. And though some libertarians — who once hoped Paul could bring about the “libertarian moment” in American politics — have been disappointed by his turn toward Trump, Paul argues he can do more to advance libertarian ideals from inside the halls of power and with the ear of the president.

Shifting views on the importance of whistleblowers

I reached out to Paul’s office, and a representative for the senator said that Paul’s views on whistleblowers have not changed. The representative noted that on November 6, Paul gave a floor speech extolling the importance of whistleblowers and introducing legislation that would extend whistleblower protections to all federal government contractors — not just federal employees or contractors within the intelligence community — and that would retroactively give that protection to contractors like Snowden.

But the next day, Paul blocked a Senate resolution in support of whistleblowers, terming it “fake outrage.” And his own legislation, the Whistleblower Protection Act of 2019, concludes with this sentence:

Congress reaffirms that, in the case of criminal prosecutions and impeachments arising from the disclosures of whistleblowers, the accused has the right to confront his or her accuser in such proceedings and that right is not superseded by the whistleblower protections.

This is why Paul’s office claimed his stance had not changed: Paul’s calls for the whistleblower’s unmasking are in this view not about stripping him of his rights, but about allowing the president to “confront” his accuser.

It is a case Paul makes explicitly in a piece for the Hill, in which he argues that because “the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to confront one’s accusers,” Trump “must both face his accuser and face questions regarding his own knowledge and activities.”

It is a case Paul has also made on Twitter:

But that argument doesn’t seem to hold up with legal thinkers, even those who might be supportive of the president. Conservative writer and former US Attorney Andrew McCarthy (who recently published a book lambasting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation), wrote in National Review of Rand Paul, “As a constitutional lawyer, Rand Paul makes a good medical doctor.”

McCarthy added that, though the whistleblower’s anonymity may not be protected by law (while also noting that Paul himself has not said the person’s name), “The Sixth Amendment has nothing to do with impeachment, and it does not advance a claim that the ‘whistleblower’ should be outed and questioned.”

Scott Shackford, an associate editor at Reason Magazine, wrote of Paul’s argument, “The way Paul is talking about revealing the whistleblower now — during the investigation itself — is akin to the police revealing the names of witnesses to a suspect long before that suspect has been charged with any crime,” adding, “The Sixth Amendment does not require the naming of witnesses in an investigation, nor should it.”

For many libertarians, Paul’s desire to unmask the whistleblower has not been popular. Nick Gillespie, Reason’s editor-at-large, told me, “Paul’s call to out the whistleblower and his insistence that Trump has a constitutional right to face his accuser — as if impeachment or just normal politics is a court battle — doesn’t play well among most libertarians I talk with.”

From “the most exciting figure in politics” to a Trump “cheerleader”

Paul entered Congress with a family name virtually synonymous with the libertarian movement (his first name, after all, is in honor of the writer Ayn Rand, a major influence on philosophical libertarianism.) His father, former Rep. Ron Paul, was a three-time presidential candidate and one of the most influential voices in libertarian circles, advocating for non-interventionism abroad, limited government at home, and extreme fiscal conservatism.

Rand Paul managed his father’s 1996 congressional campaign, and supporters of his father urged him to run for one of Kentucky’s two Senate seats — which he did, after Rep. Jim Bunning declined to run again, citing Republican opposition.

In a 2009 interview with CNN, Paul said he was running because “I’m very worried about our country; I’m worried about the debt. I’m worried about what the debt will lead to. Both sides of the aisle — Republican and Democrat — have been unwilling and afraid to address the deficit, and someone’s got to.” His father said, “I think the family sort of expected that he would be the first one to get to politics like this.”

Paul’s win in 2010, amid the rise of the Tea Party (some members of which viewed Ron Paul as the “intellectual godfather” and “brain”), was seen as a harbinger of things to come, not only for the Tea Party but also for libertarian-leaning voters and thinkers across the country. Though there are relatively few Americans who describe themselves as “libertarian” (roughly 11 percent of Americans did so in 2014), the Libertarian Party is the nation’s third-largest political party. A number of Americans hold libertarian-leaning viewpoints, leading to many arguing (granted, not for the first time) that a watershed moment for the ideology was afoot.

As the Cato Institute’s David Boaz told the Atlantic in 2013, America has a “core libertarian attitude.”

“Skepticism about power and about government, individualism, the idea that we’re all equal under the law, free enterprise, getting ahead in the world through your own hard work — all of those ideas are very fundamentally American,” Boaz said at the time. And Rand Paul was viewed as the person to take those viewpoints to the highest echelon of American politics.

Former Rep. Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican who entered Congress at the same time as Paul, told me, “I believe his message was an extension of his father’s strong Libertarian principles, and that was pivotal in 2010 as it ushered in the Tea Party movement. That message was that business as usual was not appropriate and that government should get their fiscal house in order, and get out of the business of health care, and don’t apologize for America.”

Reason Magazine’s Nick Gillespie said that when Paul first entered the Senate back in 2010, he “was the most exciting figure in politics, not just for libertarians but for most thoughtful Americans.”

In Gillespie’s view, Paul “seemed likely to bring what [Reason editor-at-large] Matt Welch and I had called ‘the libertarian moment’ to fruition: Here was a guy who was talking seriously and persuasively about reducing the size, scope, and spending of the federal government in every dimension; who was attacking police abuses in Ferguson, [Missouri]; calling for an end to the drug war; and reaching out to black and Latino audiences in serious ways; and who said of illegal immigrants, ‘If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you.’”

When he was preparing to run for president, Paul continued to emphasize his desire to see the GOP become a bigger tent, saying in 2014 that the party could not simply be for “fat cats, rich people, and Wall Street.”

But Paul’s more recent actions — lambasting the Ukraine whistleblower and demanding his name be revealed publicly, and his seeming enthusiasm for Trump — has turned off many libertarians. In a piece for Reason titled “Rand Paul Wants Whistleblower Outed. Libertarians Want the Old Rand Paul Back,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote:

Paul’s enthusiastic and near perpetual support for Trump actions continues to bum out many libertarians — who had hoped Rand would turn out more like his father, former Rep. Ron Paul — and limited-government conservatives, for whom the Kentucky senator was a bright spot back when the Tea Party movement showed promise and principles. In the #MAGA era, Paul has become one of the biggest cheerleaders of Trump-style Republicanism and a tireless defender of the president’s perspective.

Allahpundit, an anonymous blogger for the conservative website Hot Air, told me of Paul, “I remember his acceptance speech in 2010, when he beat Trey Grayson in the primary, right at the moment that Tea Party conservatism was catching fire. Grayson was the McConnell-backed establishmentarian, Paul was the populist outsider.”

The writer added, “Specifically, I remember him addressing Washington and telling him that he had a ‘message from the Tea Party.’ What did that message turn out to be? ‘Anything for Trump.’”

Paul’s particular calculus on supporting the president is complex: He once called Trump a “delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag.” But he clearly believes that staying within the bounds of the Republican Party — and firmly in support of the president — is his best option for pushing Trump, and the GOP, in a more libertarian direction. (By contrast, Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian who left the Republican Party in July, has voiced support for impeachment.)

As Gillespie told me, “I think he’s trying to figure out ways to advance his agenda, which ultimately is about balancing the budget and scaling back the warfare state. I suspect that he figures he’s got a better chance of getting some or all of that done by being the president’s good graces.”

Ross said much of the same: “I don’t think he changed his principles, I think he was made aware of a different manner in which to advocate those principles. Hence his somewhat cordial relationship with this president.”

A libertarian angel on Trump’s shoulder?

As conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued in 2018, perhaps Trump didn’t defeat libertarian ideals in 2016, but rather reappropriated them for his own purposes — most prominently with foreign policy, where Trump ran hard against the Iraq War and interventionism (and against America’s intelligence services, of which Paul is a longtime skeptic) and won.

That’s where Paul has centered his efforts to influence Trump. For example, he argued against a potential war with Iran during a June appearance on Fox News — the president’s favorite television channel.

“One of the things I like about President Trump is that he said the Iraq War was a mistake,” he said. “I think an Iran war would be even a bigger mistake than the Iraq War. We lost over 4,000 soldiers over there. I don’t think we need to get involved in another war.”

It’s not as though Paul has stopped fighting Republicans in his efforts to court Trump. He joined Democrats in adding an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that required congressional approval before money could be used in military operations in Iran.

But the problem he faces is that Trump’s occasional nod to libertarian ideals has little to do with the ideals themselves. After all, troops originally withdrawn from Syria by Trump have now been tasked with protecting Syrian oil fields, and the practice of wiretapping American citizens (something Paul has spoken out against) has not only continued under the Trump administration but also widened, with some of Trump’s biggest allies voting to maintain Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and give it additional powers (and Trump signing that expansion into law).

On other issues, like the deficit, Paul continues to rail against the Republican status quo, calling for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution — and the president doesn’t seem to care. Sure, Trump and Paul may find common ground on certain issues (like the debate over Russian interference), but that seems more to do with what Trump thinks will be most beneficial for Trump.

Despite this, in an interview with libertarian commentator John Stossel, one of Paul’s biggest supporters, he said “progress has been made” in the fight for libertarian ideals, citing tax cuts, fewer regulations, and Trump’s call for an end to “endless wars.”

When Stossel noted that Trump “hasn’t pulled out of anywhere,” Paul responded, “Compare it, though, to George W. Bush, who got us involved everywhere. Or President Obama, who sent 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. The rhetoric of President Trump has been, I think, a relief.”

“Has it happened yet? No,” he acknowledged. “But I continue to push.”