Adam Schiff did most of the heavy lifting for the House managers, and if he performed ably, he also relied on arguments and tropes that don’t withstand scrutiny.
The Democratic case for impeachment and removal is now heavily encrusted with clichés, widely accepted by the media, meant to give their indictment additional weight.
In his lengthy opening statement last week, Schiff relied on all of them, and then some.
This is not to say that the basic charge against Trump — withholding defense aid to Ukraine to try to force investigations that he wanted — is wrong, or that Trump’s conduct was proper.
It’s just that to try to get it to the level of impeachment and removal requires rhetorical gymnastics. Schiff strained to make Trump’s Ukraine scheme a piece of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, to exaggerate its national-security and electoral consequence, and to portray removal as the only remedy.
Here are 15 times that Schiff related a stilted, distorted, or flatly erroneous version of events:
- “Just as he made use of Secretary Clinton’s hacked and released emails in the previous presidential campaign.”
Schiff wanted to connect Trump to Russia’s hacking, even though there is no connection. So he said Trump “made use” of the emails. But what does that mean? That he cited them. Well, so did everyone else. As Byron York pointed out the other day, the press widely reported on the WikiLeaks disclosures. If it was blameworthy to make a big deal of information revealed in the hacks, Bernie Sanders was a major offender, calling for the resignation of then–DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz after the DNC hack.
- “In 2016, then–candidate Trump implored Russia to hack his opponent’s email account.”
Again, this is an attempt to make Trump responsible for Russia’s hacking. It refers to a press conference where Trump made a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Russians’ being rewarded by the press if they found Hillary’s missing emails. The Russians did attempt to spearfish a domain used by Clinton’s personal office on the same day, but it’s hard to believe Russian hackers were taking their cues from Trump, and of course, they had already hacked the DNC — hence, the occasion for Trump’s riff.
- In pushing the Ukrainians on the discredited CrowdStrike theory, Trump was “attempting to erase from history his previous election misconduct.”
Trump has been, no doubt, desperate to find someone else to finger for the Russian hacking since Russia is such a focus of his critics, but the hacking wasn’t his work, so to refer to it as “his previous election misconduct” is absurd.
- Robert Mueller testified “that Russia systemically interfered in our election to help elect Donald Trump, that the campaign understood that, and they willfully made use of that help.”
Schiff wants to portray Mueller as having found Trump guilty in his probe, when he actually found no evidence of collusion.
- After Mueller catalogued Russian interference, the very next day, “President Trump is on the phone with a different foreign power, this time Ukraine, trying to get Ukraine to interfere in the next election.”
In the Schiff version, a Trump caught red-handed working with the Russians to interfere in U.S. politics then immediately turns around to work with the Ukrainians. But the opposite was true. It was Trump’s sense of outraged innocence over the Mueller probe that partly motivated him to focus on Ukraine’s purported role in getting the Russia investigation started.
- Trump believes “that under Article II, he could do anything he wants.”
This has become a favorite chestnut of Democrats during impeachment, but it wrenches Trump’s statement out of context. He was talking about having the inherent Article II power to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Whatever you might have thought about the wisdom of such a move, Trump was correct about his power.
- “The military aid that we provide Ukraine helps to protect and advance American national-security interests in the region and beyond.”
This is certainly true, but every time Democrats revert to the importance of Ukrainian defense aid as a matter of policy, it raises the question of why, by and large, Democrats went along with Barack Obama’s refusal to provide any lethal assistance to Ukraine whatsoever and how Trump, overall, has been better on Ukraine assistance.
- Trump is guilty of “abusing the powers of that office in such a way to jeopardize our national security.”
It’s ridiculous to suggest that what turned out to be a brief hold on Ukraine aid had dire national-security consequences for the U.S.
- “He personally asked a foreign government to investigate his opponent.”
This has become the conventional way that Democrats refer to Trump’s request of Zelensky, although in concrete form it became a push to get them to commit to probe Burisma, the shady Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on its board. An investigation of Burisma is not the same thing as an investigation of Joe Biden. Assuming the Bidens aren’t at the center of some corrupt scheme involving Burisma (and there’s zero indication that they are), the investigation would have been a nothingburger in its impact on U.S. politics. Trump would have touted the investigation, but it is doubtful that this would have had any more impact than his already full-throated denunciations of Biden corruption.
- Trump was asking the Ukrainians to help “smear a political opponent.”
This accords more with Schiff’s fictional version of Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president than the reality. The Ukrainians weren’t being asked to manufacture evidence against Joe Biden, and an investigation of Burisma presumably wouldn’t have smeared him, per the above point.
- Acting ambassador Bill Taylor testified that the Trump team wanted the Ukrainians “in a public box” by publicly committing to the investigations, and this shows that “President Trump didn’t care about the investigations being done.”
Schiff’s theory is that Trump wanted only a public announcement of an investigation, so he could use it against Joe Biden in his campaign. Usually, though, if you want an official to publicly commit to something, it’s to make it harder for him to back out of his promise.
- Trump doesn’t have a right to solicit “prohibited foreign aid in his reelection.”
This makes it sound like Trump was raking in Ukrainian campaign contributions and getting the Ukrainians to run ads in swing states. In reality, he was pushing for the Ukrainians to investigate a Ukrainian company, the practical political effect of which would have been nil in the U.S.
- “The president’s misconduct cannot be decided at the ballot box, for we can’t be assured that the vote will be fairly won.”
It’s really amazing that Democrats have gone, in about three years, from insisting it’s impermissible to question the potential outcome of an election, when Trump ill-advisedly did so at a debate in 2016, to making it central to their worldview. They believe they were robbed in 2016 and also believe they will perhaps be robbed again. But Hillary lost under her own power in 2016, and regardless, it’s beyond the power of one person to rig a national election that will draw massive attention and turnout.
- “I don’t think that impeachment power is a relic. If it is a relic, I wonder how much longer our republic can succeed.”
Schiff argues that failure to remove eviscerates the impeachment power. Since no president has ever been convicted and removed, it’s not clear why this would be. It just means that there is a high bar to removal.
- “If impeachment and removal cannot hold him accountable, then he truly is above the law.”
Again, Schiff wants to portray impeachment as the only way a president can be held accountable, when Congress has all sorts of other levers — from investigations, to funding, to inter-branch relations, to censure — to hold a president accountable.