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McCarthy’s specious attacks on Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) levied unsubstantiated claims against California Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff on Jan. 12. (Video: The Washington Post)

“If you got the briefing I got from the FBI, you wouldn’t have [Eric] Swalwell on any committee. … Adam Schiff openly lied to the American public. He told you he had proof. He told you he didn’t know the whistleblower.”

— House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), remarks to reporters, Jan. 12

correction

An early version of this story misspelled the name of Ambassador Gordon Sondland. It has been corrected.

Two years ago, when House Democrats removed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from all House committees after she espoused extremist beliefs and approved of violence against prominent Democratic politicians, McCarthy and other Republicans warned that the precedent-shattering move would come back to haunt them. Traditionally, each party had selected its own committee members and meted its own punishment.

Late in 2021, the Democratic-controlled House also removed Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) from all committees after he used official resources to create and post an animated video depicting the killing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and violence against President Biden.

It’s apparently payback time. McCarthy announced that he would block two prominent California Democrats — Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam B. Schiff — from serving on the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff had been chair and is the ranking Democrat.

But unless you have been a regular consumer of right-wing media, you might be puzzled by the accusations used to justify their expulsion. Indeed, McCarthy’s reasoning is specious and vague, especially when compared to the actions of Greene and Gosar.

Greene’s statements and social media posts were widely publicized and, even though she renounced her statements just before the House vote, 11 Republicans backed removing her from committees. Gosar’s removal was back by two Republicans. There is no similar support in the Democratic caucus for barring Swalwell and Schiff from the Intelligence Committee. Meanwhile, Republicans said they are giving Greene and Gosar committee assignments in the new Congress.

McCarthy’s staff did not respond to repeated inquiries from The Fact Checker asking for a deeper explanation. So we will have to examine these claims without his cooperation.

Eric Swalwell

In 2020, Axios reported that a suspected Chinese intelligence operative called Christine Fang had developed extensive ties with local and national politicians, including Swalwell. She reportedly targeted up-and-coming Bay Area politicians through campaign fundraising and networking. She first met Swalwell when he was a council member in Dublin, Calif., Axios said.

She also volunteered for Rep. Ro Khanna’s unsuccessful 2014 House bid, helped with a fundraiser for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and appeared in photos with Khanna, Swalwell, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and then-Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.).

But here’s the rub: The Axios article never says Swalwell did anything questionable. Fang was a bundler for his campaign, though Axios said there were no signs of illegal contributions, and at one point she facilitated the placement of an intern in his Washington office.

The article’s unnamed sources claim Fang had sexual relations with two unidentified Midwestern mayors, but there is no suggestion of impropriety on Swalwell’s part.

The article says that when the FBI alerted Swalwell and other House members to its concerns about Fang’s activities, Swalwell immediately cut ties with her. She abruptly left the United States for China in 2015 during the FBI probe. There is also no evidence she obtained or passed on classified information, Axios said.

In an interview with CNN in 2020, Swalwell said he was “shocked” to learn of the individual’s ties back then. “Just over six years ago, I was told about this individual. And then I offered to help. And I did help. I was thanked by the FBI for my help,” he said. He said he did not share any classified information.

In December 2020, an unnamed FBI official told the San Francisco Chronicle that “Swalwell was completely cooperative and under no suspicion of wrongdoing.”

Nevertheless, McCarthy essentially hides behind a classified briefing to suggest that Swalwell did something wrong: “If you got the briefing I got from the FBI, you wouldn’t have Swalwell on any committee.” Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got the same briefing and told reporters she had no concerns — though of course she would be expected to defend a fellow Democrat. But it strains credulity that she would keep him on the committee if the FBI had warned he was compromised.

In an interview with MSNBC last week, Swalwell said that then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was aware of the FBI investigation in 2015 and did not act to remove him from the Intelligence Committee.

Ryan, who became speaker in October 2015, after Fang left the United States, “was not briefed on Rep. Swalwell in 2015,” Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert said. John A. Boehner was the speaker at the time of the briefings in early 2015.

“It was standard practice at the time Boehner served as Speaker for counterintelligence officials to notify the Speaker and Minority Leader and the Republican and Democratic leaders of the intelligence committee when counterintelligence briefings were provided to Members on either side of the aisle,” said Boehner spokesman Dave Schnittger. "We unfortunately cannot discuss or confirm specific instances of the notifications he received during his time as Speaker because these notifications routinely involved sensitive or classified information.”

“It’s purely vengeance,” Swalwell said of McCarthy’s action.

Adam B. Schiff

McCarthy’s beef with Schiff is even weaker. He claims that Schiff “lied to the American public” about whether he knew the whistleblower who triggered the impeachment investigation into whether President Donald Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation of Joe Biden in exchange for a promised White House meeting and delivery of U.S. military aid.

During the impeachment probe, Schiff tried hard to avoid having the whistleblower’s name revealed publicly, often cutting off questions that might expose the official. Eventually, right-wing media published the name of an intelligence officer, though that individual has never been officially confirmed as the whistleblower.

But we can find no evidence that Schiff lied about whether he knew the whistleblower’s name. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) repeatedly challenged Schiff during the impeachment investigation — “you have said, even though nobody believes you, that you don’t know who the whistleblower is” — but Jordan’s spokesman did not respond to repeated queries asking for evidence of McCarthy’s claim. During Trump’s trial, Schiff again denied knowing the identity of the whistleblower.

It’s possible that McCarthy is thinking of something different — our Four-Pinocchio ruling that Schiff falsely claimed, during a 2019 interview with MSNBC, that the Intelligence Committee had not spoken to the whistleblower. In fact, the whistleblower approached a House Intelligence Committee staff member for guidance before filing a complaint with an intelligence community inspector general. But that sort of dissembling to the media is not the same thing as lying in a congressional hearing.

“Kevin McCarthy continues to falsely assert I know the Ukraine whistleblower,” Schiff said in a statement to The Fact Checker. “Let me be clear — I have never met the whistleblower and the only thing I know about their identity is what I have read in press. McCarthy’s real objection is we proved the whistleblower’s claim to be true and impeached Donald Trump for withholding millions from Ukraine to extort its help with his campaign.” Schiff added: “It is predictable and sad that McCarthy has to smear other members of the House to retain the support of his QAnon conference members. The Intelligence Committee membership is too serious a business to be the subject of partisan slander — we have important work to do to keep the country safe and it’s a shame that means so little to the new speaker.”

McCarthy further has claimed that Schiff put the country “through an impeachment that he knew was a lie.” We’re not sure what he means by that. One can argue — as Republicans often did — that the transcript of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky showed that the president did not flatly suggest a quid pro quo.

But the congressional investigation under Schiff’s leadership clearly proved an official link was established and made clear to Ukraine. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union at the time and a key player on Ukraine policy, testified that he came to believe that a White House meeting and $391 million in aid to Ukraine had been made contingent on Zelensky’s announcing an investigation of Biden. Zelensky even planned to do so on CNN — but that was canceled when the whistleblower’s allegations became public.

Perhaps one can question whether this was an impeachable offense. But you can’t say this was not evidence of a pressure campaign.

The Pinocchio Test

McCarthy clearly warned there would be payback if Democrats started choosing which members could serve on House committees. The Democrats punished two Republican lawmakers — and now he wants to punish two Democrats. But in contrast to the public actions or statements made by Greene and Gosar, widely condemned at the time, these expulsions appear based on figments of imagination.

Schiff has consistently maintained he did not know the identity of the whistleblower — and no evidence has emerged to the contrary, despite McCarthy’s claim that he lied about it. As for Swalwell, there is no evidence he did anything wrong, despite McCarthy’s claim that a classified briefing suggested something nefarious.

McCarthy earns Four Pinocchios.

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