Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large
(CNN)On Monday morning, the President of the United States accused a member of Congress of treason.
“Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people,” tweeted Trump. “It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”
Wow! What Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, must have said something really, really bad, right????
Here’s what Schiff said at a hearing last week in describing the recently released transcript of a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky:
“In not so many words, this is the essence of what the President communicates.
‘We have 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. 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. Lots of it. … I’m going to put you in touch with people, not just any people, I am going to put you in touch with the attorney general, my Attorney General Bill Barr. He has the whole weight of the American law enforcement behind him. I’m going to put you in touch with Rudy. You are going to love him. Trust me. You know what I’m asking. So I’m only going to say this a few more times. In a few more ways. By the way, don’t call me again. I will call you when you have done what I asked.’
“This is in sum and character what the President was trying to communicate with the president of Ukraine. It would be funny if it wasn’t such a graphic betrayal of the President’s oath of office.”
First off, it’s clear that Schiff is not attempting to portray his summary of Trump’s call as a some sort of verbatim retelling. Schiff literally says before he starts, “in not so many words, this is the essence of what the President communicates.” Unless you are being willfully obtuse, you have now been signaled to understand that what comes next from Schiff is his interpretation of the call. He is not saying: “here’s exactly what President Trump said to President Zelensky.”
Then there’s the Schiff summary itself. Trump says it bore “no relationship” to what he said on the call with Zelensky. Lucky for us, we have the transcript of that call! Here are a few side-by-side comparisons:
1) What Trump said: “I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are.”
What Schiff said: “We have been very good to your country, very good. No other country has done as much as we have.”
2) What Trump said: “I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
What Schiff said: “But you know what? I don’t see much reciprocity here.”
3) What Trump said: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
What Schiff said: “I have a favor I want from you though.”
4) What Trump said: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.”
What Schiff said: “I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent. Lots of it. … I’m going to put you in touch with people, not just any people, I am going to put you in touch with the attorney general, my attorney general Bill Barr.”
5) What Trump said: “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call, and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.”
What Schiff said: “I’m going to put you in touch with Rudy. You are going to love him. Trust me. You know what I’m asking. So I’m only going to say this a few more times. In a few more ways.”
It’s not all that different, right? Yes, Schiff embellishes in places — “lots” of dirt on Biden, “you are going to love” Rudy Giuliani — but, in the main, what Schiff said Trump said is, in fact, what Trump said. Not word for word, but certainly in its sentiments.
(And obviously, even IF Schiff had completely botched his representation of Trump’s words, that is not, uh, treason.)
The President hadn’t let it go by Monday afternoon, telling reporters, “He actually took words and made it up.”
So why has Trump fixated on this? The shortest answer is that the President always needs a villain to focus his ire on. Schiff looks like that guy for now. The longer answer is that Schiff’s opening statement drew the ire of conservative media outlets who insisted he was purposely trying to misquote Trump. Which a) he wasn’t and b) he didn’t. Remember always that Trump’s lens on the world is cable TV, and Fox News in particular. When he sees his conservative friends going nuts about what Schiff said, he picks it up and elevates it — in hopes that his supporters will just take his word for it.
Which, well, they probably will. But that doesn’t mean what Trump is saying Schiff said is accurate. Not even close.