Democrats were delighted when Schiff’s passionate appeal to Republican senators to put country before Trump went viral — a cinematic moment for the congressman from Hollywood who once dreamed of writing screenplays.
His performance this past week even prompted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s friends in the Senate, to stop him in the Capitol on Wednesday night to tell him “good job” and praise him as “well-spoken.” Graham said he praised Schiff’s performance to Trump, too.
Even if some Senate Republicans found Schiff to be a compelling speechmaker, they also agree with Trump’s lawyers that the congressman is an unreliable storyteller, a criticism that echoes the president’s more biting invectives against the House Intelligence Committee chairman. And his passionate pleas are unlikely to sway GOP senators, most of whom made up their minds long ago to vote to acquit Trump.
Immediately, Trump’s team put front-and-center one frequent GOP attack on Schiff: his decision, at the outset of the first hearing under impeachment auspices on Sept. 26, to read a dramatized version of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pressuring him to investigate his domestic political rivals.
Schiff said it was “meant to be at least part in parody,” but it fueled scores of attacks over the ensuing months.
Beginning his presentation Saturday, Deputy White House Counsel Mike Purpura played video of Schiff at the September hearing and used it to launch a broadside against the House probe.
“That’s fake. That’s not the real call,” he said. “We can shrug it off and say we were making light or a joke. But that was in a hearing in the United States House of Representatives discussing the removal of the president of the United States from office. There are very few things, if any, that can be as grave and as serious. Let’s stick with the evidence.”
Schiff anticipated the attack in his closing argument Friday. “I discovered something very significant by mocking the president, and that is for a man who loves to mock others, he does not like to be mocked,” he said, drawing chuckles in the chamber — including from some Republican senators. “Never mind that I said I wasn’t using his words. . . . ‘It’s an outrage! He mocked the president! That Schiff — terrible!’ ”
There were more assaults on Schiff’s credibility to come, including his insistence throughout special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s exhaustive investigation that Trump was guilty of colluding with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
Deputy White House Counsel Patrick F. Philbin played a recording of a March 2017 television interview in which Schiff claimed there was “more than circumstantial evidence” of collusion.
That claim was not supported by Mueller’s final report, Philbin said, and thus should color senators’ willingness to believe Schiff’s present charges against Trump.
“He has been telling you things like: What’s in President Trump’s head? What’s in President Zelensky’s head? It’s all his interpretation of the facts and the evidence, trying to pull inferences out of things,” Philbin said.
Philbin also poked at another problematic issue for Schiff: the question of his committee’s interaction with the anonymous whistleblower who sparked the impeachment investigation. Schiff initially claimed no contact with the whistleblower, then later admitted Intelligence Committee staff had contact and had encouraged the person to seek legal counsel and speak to the inspector general.
The Trump team showed clips of Schiff at the start of the probe saying he would be open to calling the whistleblower to testify, and they questioned why Schiff ultimately decided not to interview the person.
Schiff has said the account of the whistleblower, who only knew about the July 25 call secondhand, became irrelevant once the committee had corroborated the accusation with people in the Trump administration who had more direct knowledge.
Schiff offered a preemptory defense of his handling of the whistleblower in his closing argument Friday night.
“There were certain questions I didn’t allow — questions like, who’s the whistleblower?” he said. “Because, yes, some of us [lawmakers] believe we ought to protect whistleblowers. . . . We don’t think, though the president might, that they’re traitors and spies.”
Ever since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) entrusted the impeachment inquiry to Schiff in his capacity as chairman of the Intelligence Committee — and even before that — the 10-term congressman has been a constant in Trump’s name-calling rotation.
At rallies and on social media, Trump calls him “Shifty Schiff” and makes fun of what the president says is his thin neck. Trump’s campaign sells a T-shirt of Schiff with a red clown nose and a pencil for a neck. The description says: “Schiff’s neck size is only 9 inches!”
On Saturday morning, the president tweeted: “Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy Pelosi, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrat Party, starts today at 10:00 A.M. on @FoxNews, @OANN or Fake News @CNN or Fake News MSDNC!”
Trump’s focus on Schiff as a foe has opened the congressman up to attacks not just from Trump’s base, but also from GOP members of Congress, many of whom seemed gleeful that Trump’s lawyers went so hard on him.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate GOP leader, said the White House case “truly undermined the credibility of Adam Schiff” and brought up the Schiff “fictionalized, made-up” dramatized reading of the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call.
Republicans are expected to keep hammering Schiff next week and could seek to put him on the spot with these critiques when the trial moves to its question-and-answer phase.
The Republican National Committee blasted an email celebrating the lawyers’ attacks on Schiff and knocking him for a comment he made during Friday night’s closing remarks.
Schiff, citing a CBS News report, said Republicans who voted against Trump would find their “head on a pike.” GOP senators claimed outrage over the suggestion that they are threatened by Trump, though none said they were offended by Trump’s tweet disparaging Pelosi and other Democrats.
“He lost and offended us,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “It’s hard to keep an open mind when there’s so much baloney being thrown at you.”
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) accused Republicans of seizing on that one comment by Schiff and feigning outrage to distract from the charges against Trump.
Schiff had a similar take on all the verbal shots being directed at him, calling the criticism over his mention of the CBS report “pretty thin gruel.”
“They just want to attack the House managers — that’s what you do . . . when your client is guilty, when your client is dead to rights. You don’t want to talk about your client’s guilt, you want to attack the prosecution,” he said.
Rachael Bade, Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim and Paul Kane contributed to this report.