We now know that Schiff’s committee had a heads-up about the whistleblower complaint because the whistleblower approached Schiff’s staff for guidance before filing the complaint. The New York Times first reported this week that the whistleblower reached out to Schiff’s staff concerned that attempts to flag what the whistleblower found alarming weren’t getting due attention.
Schiff himself didn’t know the exact contents of the complaint, and he says he did not directly talk to this person. But the heads-up gave Schiff a tactical advantage; he knew to press hard to get this person’s complaint when the Trump administration initially held it.
That’s not necessarily so bad in itself. But when asked by reporters about his dealings with the whistleblower pre-complaint numerous times, Schiff either didn’t answer the question or, as The Washington Post’s Fact Checker reported, “clearly made a statement that was false. He now says he was answering the wrong question, but if that was the case he should have quickly corrected the record.” They gave him Four Pinnochios, which is reserved for a “whopper” of a false statement.
Republicans on the committee can frame this as Schiff keeping damaging information about Trump to himself. Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) was once considered a potentially persuadable Republican to support an impeachment inquiry. Now she’s asking for Schiff to step down.
The other foible Schiff’s critics are exploiting happened on the first big day of this impeachment inquiry, in the first big moment. In his opening statement in a hearing with acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire about the complaint, just two days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her backing for the inquiry, Schiff paraphrased the Ukraine call that the White House had released a rough transcript of a day earlier. Here’s how Schiff recounted the call:
And so what happened on that call? Zelensky begins by ingratiating himself and he tries to enlist the support of the President. He expresses his interest in meeting with the President and says his country wants to acquire more weapons from us to defend itself. And what is the President’s response? Well, it reads like a classic organized crime shakedown. Shorn of its rambling character and in not so many words, this is the essence of what the President communicates:
We’ve been very good to your country. Very good. No other country has done as much as we have. But you know what? I don’t see much reciprocity here. I hear what you want. I have a favor I want from you, though. And I’m going to say this only seven times, so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent. Understand? Lots of it on this and on that. I’m going to put you in touch with people, and not just any people. I’m going to put you in touch with the attorney general of the United States, my attorney general, Bill Barr. He’s got the whole weight of the American law enforcement behind him. And I’m going to put you in touch with Rudy. You’re going to love him. Trust me. You know what I’m asking? And so I’m only going to say this a few more times in a few more ways. And by the way, don’t call me again. I’ll call you when you’ve done what I asked.
This is in sum and character what the President was trying to communicate with the president of Ukraine.
Stefanik immediately jumped on the fact that Schiff paraphrased the call rather than reading what was in the rough transcript, accusing him of politicizing the investigation into the whistleblower’s complaint.
Republicans even drafted a measure to censure Schiff over the statement, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) signed onto it. Politico reported that they’ll try to force a vote on it when Congress comes back later this month. That won’t be approved by a Democratic-controlled House, but it’s a notably aggressive move from the GOP as they struggle to explain the broader allegations about Trump.
Let’s do a quick fact check on those critiques. Schiff gets the general gist of the call right: Trump says that the United States has been “very good” to Ukraine, and after Ukraine’s president asks for more missiles to defend the country from Russian-backed separatists, Trump says, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”
And depending on how you count it, Trump asks for help digging up dirt on former vice president Joe Biden’s son, Hunter and/or conspiracy theories about a hacked Democratic National Committee server about seven times. And he does tell the Ukrainian president to talk to Trump’s attorney general and personal lawyer — both men we know were traveling the globe for Trump’s political purposes. Then Trump ends the call by saying Attorney General William P. Barr and Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, will call the president of Ukraine.
Paraphrasing is a necessary part of relaying what happens. Journalists do it all the time, aiming to do it to the best of their ability to portray the truth.
But what made Schiff’s decision to paraphrase so perplexing is that the rough transcript of the call he has found so damaging to Trump was right there, willingly released by the White House. All he had to do was read it, rather than risk accusations he was misrepresenting the call by summarizing it.
It seems that Schiff wanted to add context (by saying, for example, that Barr has “got the whole weight of law enforcement behind him,” which Trump never said but was certainly implied by the mention of the attorney general’s name.) Still, why put words in his mouth when Trump has his own potentially damaging ones right there?
That being said, Republicans such as Stefanik also misrepresented what Schiff did. Some of the dialogue was fake, and Schiff added a partisan flair to it, but Schiff didn’t egregiously misconstrue things in his recounting. Republican defenders of Trump are the ones asserting Trump said or didn’t say things when the transcript itself shows they are wrong.
Schiff’s problem is this: Trump doesn’t much care about context when bashing his enemies. He’s adept at turning anything he can grasp into a blunt hammer. According to an archive of his tweet by the website Factba.se, Trump has tweeted about Schiff and his paraphrasing of the call at least half a dozen times in a week. Trump pulls this out when his administration is being criticized for not cooperating with the investigation.
It may not be a fair standard that Schiff has to be held to a much higher level of conduct than the focus of his impeachment investigation. But that’s reality for House Democrats. Trump is often willing to distort or even ignore facts to defend himself. So the last thing Democrats need to do is drop stuff in his lap to use, as Schiff has done these past two weeks.