It has proved to be difficult for Trump to argue that his actions were appropriate. Instead, he and his allies have tried to argue around the edges, criticizing how the whistleblower filed his complaint or how the Democrats are conducting the impeachment probe instead of defending Trump’s actions on the merits.
In recent days, Trump has gone further, misrepresenting how Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) came to criticize Trump’s call with Zelensky. It’s a remarkable glimpse at how Trump tries to shift reality in front of our eyes, but also a good example of how hard it can be to suss out the line between a mistake and a lie.
On Sept. 26, the day after the rough transcript was released, Schiff offered a paraphrase of its contents during a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, of which he serves as chair. The paraphrasing cast Trump’s call in a deliberately negative light, with CNN’s fact-checker Daniel Dale writing that Schiff “did make it easy for viewers to get confused” about what Trump had actually said.
In short order, Trump seized on Schiff’s depiction of the call as problematic to the point of criminality. This is standard operating procedure for a guy who spent decades in New York real estate, inflating everything to its extreme. But over time, as Dale noted on Sunday, it also led Trump to reorder history to try to make Schiff look even more dishonest than Trump’s misrepresentations.
He got there in three steps.
Step 1: Trump says Schiff lied about the call and got caught.
“Rep. Adam B. Schiff fraudulently read to Congress, with millions of people watching, a version of my conversation with the President of Ukraine that doesn’t exist,” Trump tweeted on the day after Schiff’s committee hearing. “He was supposedly reading the exact transcribed version of the call, but he completely changed the words to make it sound horrible, and me sound guilty. HE WAS DESPERATE AND HE GOT CAUGHT.”
He “got caught” in the sense that, during the hearing, Schiff was called out by Republicans for the paraphrasing.
On Sept. 29, Trump escalated his rhetoric.
“Schiff made up what I actually said by lying to Congress,” he wrote on Twitter. “His lies were made in perhaps the most blatant and sinister manner ever seen in the great Chamber. He wrote down and read terrible things, then said it was from the mouth of the President of the United States. I want Schiff questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason.”
Notice, though, that Trump is still presenting the timeline correctly at this point. At a swearing-in ceremony for Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Trump presented Schiff's actions in the proper order.
“When he saw my call to the President of Ukraine, it was so good that he couldn't quote from it because it — there was nothing done wrong,” Trump said. “It was perfect. So Adam B. Schiff decided, 'I can't let this happen, so let me make up.'"
He repeated a similar complaint the following day.
Mind you, Trump’s complaints are not without some irony. “Adam B. Schiff … made up my words, which I think is just a horrible,” Trump said during that same event. “I’ve never even seen a thing like that.”
2. Trump claims Schiff and Pelosi were somehow caught by the transcript of the call.
In a tweet on Oct. 5, Trump for the first time blurs the timeline of events.
Trump has argued that Pelosi’s call for impeachment was hobbled by his release of the transcript, which is not a view shared by Pelosi or many other observers. Trump is probably tying Schiff and Pelosi together here solely to taint Schiff through association with the unpopular-with-Republicans Pelosi. But we see the rough outline of a more nefarious and more explicitly false accusation: that Schiff’s paraphrasing was uncovered by the release of the transcript.
The following day, Trump tweeted that both Pelosi and Schiff were guilty of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors, and even Treason” and that they should “be immediately Impeached!” These are ridiculous assertions for a number of reasons, but it shows both the fervor of Trump’s efforts to strike back at his opponents and his disinterest in accuracy while doing so.
3. He claims that Schiff’s misrepresentation of the call was exposed when Trump released the transcript.
On Oct. 7, Trump for the first time inverted the order of what happened.
“I had a perfect phone call with the President of Ukraine — like, I mean perfect,” Trump said. “People read it, but they don't read that. They heard Schiff's version of it. He defrauded the American public. He gave the most horrible rendition, adding his own words.” He took a quick aside to note that no one had ever seen anything like it.
“He made it up,” Trump continued. “Because what happened is they spoke about a day too early."
The “they” here still seems like Trump may be lumping Schiff together with Pelosi, but the implication is clear: Schiff made up what Trump's call said — but he spoke too early in doing so.
Speaking to reporters before leaving the White House for a political rally in Minnesota on Oct. 10, Trump made his first explicit assertion that Schiff had presented his paraphrasing before the transcript was released.
“I will say this: Adam B. Schiff took that conversation before he saw it and fabricated a conversation,” Trump said. “To me, that's criminal. What he did is criminal."
At the rally, Trump was back to the proper order — before again blurring what happened.
“So we released the transcript of the call, which was so good that that crooked Adam B. Schiff, this guy is crooked. He had to make up a fake conversation that never happened and he delivered to the United States Congress and the American people,” Trump said. He went on to criticize Pelosi for defending Schiff’s comments in an interview with ABC News.
“These people are sick,” he said of Pelosi and Schiff. “I’m telling you they’re sick, and you know what? Had they waited one day longer, they would have had the transcript of the actual call, word for word, and it would have been perfect. Instead, they released it, they went early. They said all these horrible things. Do you know why? Because they never thought in a million years that I was going to release a transcript of the call.”
Speaking to reporters the following day, he was back to the correct order of events.
“Schiff made up a story,” he said. “Because when Schiff read what I actually said, he said, ‘I can’t say this because he did nothing wrong.’ So Schiff went out, and he made up a lie.”
But at the Value Voters Summit on Saturday, Trump again suggested that Schiff was busted by the transcript.
“He made up a phone call, but then I did something that they didn't expect,” Trump said of Schiff. “I immediately called up Ukraine, through my representatives … I got approval to immediately make that call public."
That's not true, but on Monday morning he reiterated that order.
The implication — if not the specific wording — is that the transcript caught Schiff, which it didn't.
There's an objective reality here. Schiff's representation of what Trump said on the call came only after the transcript was already out. Trump is clearly hoping to convince listeners that the timeline was reversed, changing Schiff's paraphrasing from something misleading into something nefarious and changing Trump's response from one of frustration to one of cleverness.
It’s fair to wonder, though, the extent to which the timeline has actually become muddied. At times, Trump conveys events properly, albeit with a hyperbolic response. At times, he conflates Schiff and Pelosi. At times he presents Schiff as having been caught red-handed.
Which one Trump actually believes isn't clear. It probably doesn't matter. His strategy is often simply to generate enough reasonable doubt about a subject that his supporters and Americans more broadly simply throw up their hands in exasperation about knowing what actually happened. Here, though, it's not complicated.
Trump said something else revealing at the Value Voters Summit on Saturday.
“They're of the opinion,” he said of Schiff and Pelosi — “just keep saying it, saying it, saying it, maybe someday they'll believe it."
“And frankly if I weren’t there, because I was incredulous. I couldn’t believe it,” Trump continued. “I heard it, I said, that’s not what I said. He made up a conversation, and it was vicious what he said. And then we caught him.”
If he just keeps saying it, saying it, saying it, maybe someday the public will believe it.