Republicans’ effort to castigate California Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee spearheading the impeachment inquiry, met a quick and sudden defeat on Monday in a vote of 218-185.
Spurred on by President Donald Trump’s attacks on the chairman, GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led an effort to censure Schiff on the House floor. On what grounds? It’s almost too absurd to make up: lying.
The party of Donald Trump — who lied more times in the hours before the censure vote than Schiff even stands accused of — actually claimed that it’s the California lawmaker who should be called out for dishonesty.
So what are the “lies” the GOP accuses Schiff of?
The first is an entirely frivolous charge. Trump and Republicans have latched on to a moment in a hearing on Sept. 26 in which Schiff re-enacted the president’s Ukraine call that triggered the impeachment inquiry. Schiff exaggerated the dialogue and did not quote the transcript verbatim, so Trump and Republicans have accused him of lying. But he wasn’t, in fact, lying at all, because he made clear at the beginning of his remarks that he wouldn’t be providing “the exact transcribed version of the call” but instead “the essence of what the president communicates.” You can quibble about how fair Schiff was to the president, but it wasn’t a lie, and it was certainly not close to anything that would warrant censure.
The second instance of Schiff’s supposed lying is somewhat more dubious, but it’s still not even clear it was a lie, and even it was, it’s not clear why it would be significant. This accusation focuses on Schiff’s public comments about the whistleblower who alerted the country to Trump’s call with Ukraine. In one interview, Schiff was asked if his committee had spoken to the whistleblower, and he said “we” hadn’t. Later it was revealed that the whistleblower had come to committee staff prior to filing the complaint, and the staff, as is procedure, directed the whistleblower to follow the standard protocols.
This slight discrepancy has been catastrophized by Republicans, who have been screaming that it shows some kind of duplicity. But there are plenty of plausible, innocent explanations for Schiff’s claim. He may have simply been referring to the fact that the committee had not interviewed the whistleblower. Or he may have been trying to help keep the whistleblower’s identity a secret, as the law guarantees, by declining to reveal information about their contacts.
Republicans insist there must be a nefarious reason for the lie. But it’s hard to actually see what this reason could possibly be. Even if the darkest right-wing fever dreams are true, and Schiff colluded with the whistleblower to craft the complaint to take down the president, the fact is that Trump, the White House, and Rudy Giuliani have already confirmed the central damning details included in the complaint. Perhaps we could chide Schiff for not being more forthright — again, assuming a far-fetched theory for which there is no compelling evidence — but even then, there’s no real substance to his supposed wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Trump lies every day, about things big and small and about his own criminality. And Republicans, for the most part, just don’t care.
So why all this fulmination about Schiff?
The answer is simple: Republicans need an enemy. That’s why Trump tried to turn Rober Mueller into an enemy during the Russia investigation. Since Trump is obviously guilty of the misconduct he’s been accused of, his best defense is to distract claim his accusers and the people who can hold him accountable are the real wrongdoers.
Schiff has become the target because he’s an articulate, prominent, and powerful critic of the president. The slander of him is preposterous on its face, but for Trump devotees — or even those desperate to claim both sides are acting badly — that won’t matter. All that matters is that he fills the role of antagonist in the Trump-focused melodrama.