Writing a good letter is really hard.
Writing a good letter whose purpose is to publicly charge the leader of the free world with democracy-destroying misconduct ― with brevity and clarity ― is a monumental task.
Yet the whistleblower behind the complaint that launched an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump did just that. It’s well written. It’s clear. The sentences are easy to read. Its point ― that the president of the United States has undermined America’s democracy ― screams off the page.
The complaint is not only a strong argument for the impeachment of a president, it’s just good writing, and it deserves a place in the canon of how to write well.
Let’s break down the first page.
The whistleblower (let’s just call them WB) gets right to the heart of the matter.
“I am reporting an ‘urgent concern,’” WB begins, addressed to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairmen of their respective chamber’s intelligence committees.
“Urgent concern” evokes the gravity of the situation. It’s an adjective and noun duo that is not messing around, forcing the addressees to lean in and pay close attention. The words are made even stronger by the quotation marks, which reveal that the phrase is pulled from the intelligence community’s Whistleblower Protection Act.
Plus, “urgent concern” was biting and catchy enough that it pervaded the conversation on the matter: Schiff parroted the phrase as he questioned acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire at Thursday’s hearing on the complaint.
Two sentences later, WB provides succinct evidence to back up the thesis: There are witnesses who have observed the president abusing “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.”
WB goes on to explain that it wasn’t just Trump violating America’s democracy. He had help. Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, is a “central figure.” Attorney General William Barr is also involved.
WB could have used a huge block of text to explain how Giuliani and Barr aided in election interference ― an accusation of this magnitude requires a lot of evidence, after all. But this isn’t the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, with all its dense, legal lingo. WB wanted Burr and Schiff to comprehend the stakes immediately, so WB broke the accusations down into easy-to-read bullet points.
Bullet points are a gift to readers, and WB knows this. It is hard to read a lot of words bunched up together without taking a break, and bullet points are the perfect solution. They are the punctuation equivalent of creating white space. The readers get a chance to take each one in and digest them.
These bullet points pack a punch. The first one establishes a timeline and sourcing: WB investigated and researched information about Trump’s alleged misconduct for four months, gathering evidence from “half a dozen” officials. The second makes clear that WB is not a firsthand witness. This is a vital piece of information that needed to be said upfront. If WB’s witness status were revealed further down in the letter, it might cause Burr and Schiff to mistrust WB for not saying so sooner.
The third paragraph drives home that the allegations represent the “urgent concern,” and drills down further into the legal implication. The president’s actions are “a violation of law.” WB is reporting the wrongdoing because U.S. national security is at stake.
The rest of the letter goes on to provide more details and evidence, but the core information is right there on the first page in those first three paragraphs.
There is a thesis, a matter of “urgent concern.”
There is evidence to back up the thesis. Who are the bad actors and what did they do?
There is a conclusion. The stakes are high. America’s democracy is at great risk.
WB got all of that on the first page. Taken together, the first three paragraphs provide the reader the who, what, where, when and why, the foundation of good writing taught from the get-go in elementary school classrooms across the country.
The thrust of the letter was to communicate, in clear and concise language so that the readers were not in the least bit confused, that the president was putting America’s security in jeopardy with his actions.
Who is this mystery writer? While his identity is still not public, The New York Times broke the news that he is a CIA officer “who is an analyst by training” “steeped in the details of American foreign policy” with a “sophisticated understanding of Ukrainian politics.”
The Times published this information, executive editor Dean Baquet said, because it goes to the whistleblower’s credibility. That may be true. But the whistleblower’s letter alone, with the force of his writing, already accomplished that, a conclusion reached by none other than the intelligence community’s inspector general himself.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the phrase “urgent concern” was pulled from the U.S. Constitution.