U.S. Sen. John Cornyn
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is seeking reelection to a fourth term in 2020. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Let me introduce you to John Cornyn before he became a Washingtonian, when he was a Texan who performed a national news-making act of political courage.

Cornyn was born in Houston, but he came to San Antonio to attend Trinity University and then St. Mary’s University School of Law. He practiced in San Antonio before being elected district judge at the age of 32 as part of a Republican slate of reform-minded judges determined to clean up a Bexar County courthouse that had grown corrupt from more than a century of Democratic one-Party rule.

He served six years as a Bexar County judge before being elected in 1990 to the Texas Supreme Court, where he earned a reputation as a capable, moderately conservative justice. In 1998, he became the first Republican since Reconstruction to be elected attorney general of Texas. It was in this office that he performed that act of political courage and integrity.

An Argentinian immigrant was convicted of murder and sentenced to death based partly on the “expert” testimony of a psychologist named Walter Quijano, who told the jury that Hispanics were “overrepresented” in prison. So the fact that the convicted man was Hispanic meant that he was a continuing danger. In Texas, that is a condition for the death penalty.

Texas state appellate courts had repeatedly upheld death sentences in cases where Quijano had offered similar testimony. Texas prided itself in leading the nation in executions. Yet Cornyn, as attorney general, stepped in the path of the district attorney in the case and took the side of defense lawyers in the case of Victor Hugo Saldano. In legal terms, he “confessed error” to the U.S. Supreme Court, formally admitting that Texas had denied the defendant his constitutional rights by introducing ethnicity into the sentencing.

Many of the state’s district attorneys were outraged at Cornyn. They even went to court to argue that he had no authority to intervene. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal matters, ruled that he did.

Less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Argentinian’s death sentence, Cornyn drew national attention by announcing that his office had found six more men placed on Texas’s death row partly due to racist testimony by Quijano.

Now let’s look at John Cornyn today. From 2013 to 2018 he was Senate whip, a top lieutenant to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A few days ago he used his bullhorn to amplify one of the key White House talking points in the impeachment controversy, tweeting: “How can you be a whistleblower if you are merely relying on what other, unnamed people are telling you, i.e., no personal knowledge?”

It is a cynical argument. That is exactly how, by necessity, reporters cover much of governmental action, and especially misdeeds. We are almost never invited in the room where people in power are misbehaving. We must rely, second hand, on witnesses who often reasonably feel the need to remain anonymous. Sometimes we rely on people who themselves only heard of the misdeeds from others.

Of course, before we go to print we must check out the stories these people tell us. We consult other sources, find what documentation we can, and examine the motives of all involved. (The fact that some of our sources may have ulterior motives doesn’t make them wrong, but it does require more scrutiny.)

CIA operatives work in exactly the same way, which helps explain why Republican Rep. Will Hurd, a former CIA agent, is taking the whistleblower’s report seriously. CIA agents don’t talk to Putin. At their best they talk to people who talk to Putin, or people who talk to people who talk to Putin. Then those agents seek evidence that either supports or debunks their sources before coming to conclusions.

This is exactly what the whistleblower did. He wrote that he had spoken with more than a half dozen U.S. officials about the broader controversy. Regarding his account of the damning phone call between President Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, he cites “multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call.”

If you have a nagging feeling that you shouldn’t judge the whistleblower’s account without reading it, you’ll find it here.

The important issue is not whether the whistleblower was in the room, but whether he got it right. He did. His description of Trump’s telephone conversation with the Ukrainian president showed his sources to be very reliable, accurately covering Trump’s repeated request for Ukrainian investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter and into a fully debunked conspiracy allegation regarding the 2016 election. The whistleblower even included Trump’s repeated request that Zelensky speak with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, and Attorney General William Barr.

What’s more, the whistleblower provides the wider context in which the phone call took place, including the efforts by Giuliani to pressure Ukrainian officials into conducting the trumped-up investigations and Trump’s unexplained freezing of nearly $400 million in defense funding for Ukraine. (For a clear analysis of the broader danger of the Trump/Giuliani Ukrainian caper, read this excellent piece published Sunday by Jackson Diehl. He is the son of Kemper Diehl, the late dean of South Texas political reporters. Jackson was a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and is now the paper’s deputy editorial page editor.)

Cornyn is not stupid. He knows his argument is bogus. When he presided over trials at the Bexar County Courthouse he didn’t limit testimony to people who had been in the room when the deed was done. He allowed juries to hear from investigators who had come to sound conclusions in exactly the way the whistleblower in this case did.

Unfortunately, the John Cornyn that we knew when he was a judge here in San Antonio, and a Supreme Court justice and attorney general in Austin, has been thoroughly transformed by his years in toxic Washington, and in particular in the Trump conversion of the Republican Party. Maybe it’s time that he returns home and becomes a Texan again.

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Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.