Schiff got the general gist of the call right in his rehash of it, but he added partisan flair in his summary. And that is why House Republicans, 173 of them, are trying to push a vote Monday to censure Schiff.
If this sounds like a partisan move for a partisan move, that’s because it is. Censure is one of Congress’s most severe tools for rebuking one of their own (members of Congress can’t be impeached). Censure by itself doesn’t do anything to the sitting lawmaker. But the process of censure is pretty dramatic, requiring “that the offending Member stand in the well of the House as the resolution of censure is read aloud by the Speaker,” according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
It’s only been done six times in the past 100 years. Earlier this year some lawmakers tried to censure Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) for racially offensive comments, such as questioning why “white supremacy” was such an offensive term. The Democratic leader in the House knocked that censure vote down, fearful it would create a precedent for politicizing speech. Democrats plan to easily block this attempt at censure from coming to a vote, too.
With that context, here’s what Schiff did.
In the only public hearing pertaining to the Ukraine whistleblower complaint since Pelosi authorized the impeachment inquiry, here’s how Schiff recounted the July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky:
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.-Schiff
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, including Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), 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.
Schiff later said his reading was a parody that was self-evident at the time. I fact-checked Republican critiques of Schiff’s paraphrasing recently:
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.
As I argued at The Fix, summarizing the call like that was an unforced political error on Schiff’s part. It’s a time when his political enemies are looking for any reason to undermine him. Why put words in Trump’s mouth when Trump has his own potentially damaging words right there?
Republicans have used this to accuse Schiff of being too partisan to conduct a fair probe. He paraphrased a call; what else is he doing to sway the public? “He’s not a fair arbiter, and that’s part of what this goes to,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who is leading this resolution, told Fox News. “He’s kind of poisoned the well here.”
Perhaps most useful to Trump is that this censure resolution has become a way for his defenders to create a villain in this impeachment inquiry out of someone who otherwise is not necessarily a household name. On Monday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a list of 23 Republicans who hadn’t signed onto the censure resolution and urged Trump supporters to put pressure on them.
Trump himself has tweeted about Schiff 16 times over the past week, a rate of more than twice a day, according to the database factba.se.
Democrats are the majority in the House, so Republicans pushing this knew from the jump it wouldn’t get far. But the move is emblematic of Republicans’ broader problem: They don’t have much to work with to defend Trump from allegations that he used foreign policy to benefit himself politically. So they’re trying to get mileage out of a perceived blunder by the person designated as a boogeyman on the other side. That’s the reason Republicans are pushing to censure Schiff.