Never in the field of political conflict has so much been made by so many out of so little.
Because the topic here is caricatured speeches, I hasten to add: Winston Churchill didn’t say that. As the Senate’s impeachment trial of Donald Trump begins, one of the more curious, and less enlightening, elements has been the focus by the president’s legal team on an old speech by Representative Adam Schiff, the leading House impeachment manager.
During a September 26 hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, which he chairs, Schiff delivered an ill-advised parody rendition of Trump’s July phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Although the president’s team keeps promising a defense of Trump’s behavior on the merits, it has been more inclined to invoke that moment than to offer any substantial defense.
Today the Senate impeachment trial began with what was ostensibly an argument about its rules, as proposed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump’s lawyers began with brief comments endorsing the rules. Then Schiff spoke at length, with a detailed (though doomed) argument for why the rules should be altered to include calling witnesses and gathering documents. Then came a rebuttal by the president’s lawyers.
“It’s very difficult to sit there and listen to Mr. Schiff tell the tale that he just told,” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone said. “Let’s remember how we all got here. They made false allegations about a telephone call. The president of the United States declassified that telephone call and released it to the public.” (It’s unclear what about the allegations were false; Trump released the call in a last-ditch effort to forestall impeachment after weeks of stonewalling.)
Cipollone continued: “When Mr. Schiff saw that his allegations were false, and he knew it anyway, what did he do? He went to the House, and he manufactured a fraudulent version of that call. He manufactured a false version of that call. He read it to the American people, and he didn’t tell them it was a complete fake.”
Cipollone’s philippic had effectively zero relevance to the matter at hand, but it was surely not a mistake or a coincidence. The September 26 episode has been at the center of Trump’s defense messaging.
In the president’s reply brief on January 18, Cipollone and Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow wrote, “Mr. Schiff created a fraudulent version of the July 25 call and read it to the American people at a congressional hearing, without disclosing that he was simply making it all up. The fact that Mr. Schiff felt the need to fabricate a false version of the July 25 call proves that he and his colleagues knew there was absolutely nothing wrong with that call.”
And in their longer trial memorandum on January 20, they wrote, “Chairman Schiff began the hearings in this matter by lying once again and reading a fabricated version of the President’s telephone conversation with President Zelenskyy [sic] to the American people.”
There’s no arguing that Schiff’s rendition of the phone call was extremely dumb. There was no need to dramatize or exaggerate the call, which is is extremely incriminating on its own. With his stunt, Schiff gave his opponents a useful tool to demagogue the whole proceeding. It was perhaps Schiff’s biggest tactical error of the impeachment so far.
And it is also completely beside the point. Cries of “fraudulent” aside, Schiff was fooling no one. The transcript was already, at that point, public, so anyone could read it. No one in the room with Schiff believed he was offering the real transcript; it’s doubtful anyone watching on TV or the internet did, either, and in any case Schiff acknowledged it was not real.
That didn’t stop Trump from tweeting about it again and again and again. The frequency with which the president has tweeted about the episode has much to do with the frequency with which his lawyers have invoked it. It’s a question of audience. Sometimes lawyers use legalese; this legal team is speaking Hannity-ese. It isn’t trying to convince any senators as a matter of law, because the lawyers know that there aren’t the votes to convict Trump and remove him from office. Nor are they making any attempt to convince the plurality of Americans who support removing Trump.
The Trump team’s defense is political, not legal, and thus it echoes the president’s political strategy throughout his tenure: He has focused on ginning up support among the minority of Americans who (staunchly) back him, while making practically no effort to expand his support and win over those who oppose him. Instead, he caters to the conservative media outlets that prop him up. Ranting about Schiff’s dumb parody doesn’t win any legal points, but it will score points—and get airtime—in those outlets.
As with many of Trump’s base plays, this one is deeply cynical. It supposes that voters have no sense of proportion or weight. Even if Schiff had been trying to fool someone, it’s absurd to assign such a moment equal weight as the accusations against Trump. The president stands accused of subverting American foreign policy and the will of Congress, coercing a foreign government to interfere in domestic affairs to aid his own reelection effort, and of obstructing the function of Congress. Adam Schiff stands accused of making some dumb remarks.
And if the president’s lawyers really believed that telling goofy and easily disprovable lies was disqualifying for a political leader, they’d be working for different clients.