OP-ED: Schiff’s riff on Trump’s Ukraine call was more truth than parody, but still unwise
The ratcheting up of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry has pushed President Trump to new extremes of craziness, as my colleague Jon Healey wrote recently. Consider the president’s deranged attack Monday morning on Rep. Adam B. Schiff, unaffectionately known to Trump as “Liddle’ Adam Schiff.”
On Twitter, Trump suggested that Schiff might have committed treason by reading aloud a “FAKE & terrible statement” that, according to Trump, purported to quote from the White House account of the president’s July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The president harrumphed that Schiff’s rendition at the beginning of a Thursday hearing of the House Intelligence Committee “bore NO relationship to what I said on the call.” (Last week, he cited Schiff’s characterization of the call as cause for Schiff to resign from Congress.)
Not for the first time, the president has gotten it wrong. It would have been clear to anyone watching Schiff’s remarks before the testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire that the congressman wasn’t claiming to quote Trump. Rather, Schiff offered his own opinionated summary of what Trump meant in his remarks to Zelenskiy. (It reminded me a bit of an old feature in Mad magazine that contrasted “What They Say” with “What It Really Means.”)
Here are the highlights of Schiff’s remarks: “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 gonna 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.’”
Schiff later said his summary of Trump’s comments “was meant to be, at least part, in parody.” Actually, you could argue that there was more truth than parody in Schiff’s rewrite — but it was obvious from the start that it was a rewrite. No sentient viewer would think Schiff was presenting his words as what Trump literally said. (I suppose someone walking quickly by a TV set tuned to C-SPAN might have heard a snippet of Schiff’s presentation and been momentarily misled, but that’s far from what Trump alleged.)
Schiff’s “what he meant” maneuver wasn’t a misrepresentation, and it certainly wasn’t treasonous. But it was unwise, given that impeachment is a political and public-relations process as much as a constitutional one. Now that he has been anointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, as the lead inquisitor in the impeachment investigation, and knowing that Trump will exploit every opening, Schiff needs to watch his words carefully even if the president he’s investigating doesn’t.
— Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.