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Fact check: Breaking down Adam Schiff's account of Trump's Ukraine call

Posted September 27, 2019 5:17 p.m. EDT

— In a tweet on Friday morning, President Donald Trump called for the resignation of Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, as he has also done in the past.

"Rep. Adam Schiff fraudulently read to Congress, with millions of people watching, a version of my conversation with the President of Ukraine that doesn't exist. He was supposedly reading the exact transcribed version of the call, but he completely changed the words to make it sound horrible, and me sound guilty. HE WAS DESPERATE AND HE GOT CAUGHT," Trump wrote. "Adam Schiff therefore lied to Congress and attempted to defraud the American Public. He has been doing this for two years. I am calling for him to immediately resign from Congress based on this fraud!"

We can't endorse Trump's claim that Schiff "lied," since Schiff introduced his comments at Thursday's committee hearing by saying he would be outlining "the essence of what the president communicates," not providing "the exact transcribed version of the call." And it's important to note that we do not even have an "exact transcribed version" of the call -- the rough transcript released by the White House cautions explicitly that it is "not a verbatim transcript."

Still, Schiff's remarks did make it easy for viewers to get confused. He did not make clear which words he was taking directly from Trump's comments in the rough transcript, which words were his own analysis, and which words were meant to be the comedic "parody" he later said he was intending.

At some points, Schiff's words strayed quite far from what the rough transcript showed Trump saying.

Given Schiff's prominent role at the high-profile Thursday hearing and in the Democrats' overall opposition to Trump as the party makes an impeachment push, it's worth taking a deep dive into what happened here.

What Schiff said about the call

Let's go quote by quote through the relevant part of Schiff's statement.

Schiff: "President Zelensky, eager to establish himself at home as the friend of the president of the most powerful nation on earth, had at least two objectives: get a meeting with the president and get more military help. And so what happened on that call? Zelensky begins by ingratiating himself, and he tries to enlist the support of the president. He expresses his interest in meeting with the president, and says his country wants to acquire more weapons from us to defend itself."

Analysis: This is an accurate summary. Zelensky complimented Trump, saying he had used "quite a few of your skills and knowledge" in his winning election campaign; urged Trump to "call me more often" and (later in the call) to visit Ukraine; and said Ukraine is "almost ready" to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles from the United States.

Schiff: "And what is the President's response? Well, it reads like a classic organized crime shakedown."

Analysis: This is a subjective matter of opinion.

Schiff: "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."

Analysis: Schiff shifted here from his own voice to the voice of Trump. But this is a roughly accurate summary of what Trump said, though Schiff used slightly different words.

Trump said in the call, "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." Trump then said of the US-Ukraine relationship: "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."

Schiff: "I hear what you want. I have a favor I want from you, though. And 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. Understand? Lots of it, on this and on that."

Analysis: Here's where Schiff veered quite a distance from what the rough transcript says.

Trump did not repeat a demand related to a political opponent "seven times," according to the rough transcript. He told Zelensky three times that he would get his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to call Zelensky. He twice mentioned Biden's effort to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired, saying this is what he wanted Zelensky to look into. (The prosecutor was widely criticized for failing to prosecute corruption, and there is no evidence of Biden wrongdoing.

Trump said in the call, "I would like you to do us a favor though," nearly identical to Schiff's version. But the next thing Trump said was not about Biden -- it was that he wanted Zelensky to look into something related to cybersecurity company CrowdStrike and "the server," possibly referring to Democratic National Committee computers hacked by Russia in 2016.

Trump was alluding to a conspiracy theory; we explain here.

Trump also did not tell Zelensky to "make up dirt" on Biden. Rather, Trump said in the call: "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. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it...It sounds horrible to me."

As we have previously noted, Trump was himself inaccurate here: Biden has not boasted about having "stopped the prosecution" of a Ukrainian case in which his son Hunter Biden had an interest.

But Trump asked Zelensky in the call to "look into" his baseless claim about Biden, not to make things up.

Schiff's subtext

Schiff's team argues that there was a subtext here -- that asking Zelensky to dig into Biden was effectively asking him to "make up dirt," since there is not actual Biden wrongdoing to be found.

Schiff: "I'm going to put you in touch with people, and not just any people. I'm going to put you in touch with the attorney general of the United States, my attorney general, Bill Barr. He's got the whole weight of the American law enforcement behind him. And I'm going to put you in touch with Rudy."

Analysis: Trump did tell Zelensky that he would have Giuliani and the attorney general, William Barr, call him.

Trump did not tell Zelensky that Barr has "the whole weight of the American law enforcement behind him," but this is obviously true of the attorney general.

Schiff: "You're going to love him (Giuliani). Trust me. You know what I'm asking? And so I'm only going to say this a few more times in a few more ways. And by the way, don't call me again. I'll call you when you've done what I asked."

Analysis: Trump did not tell Zelensky not to call him again until he had done what Trump asked, nor did he say "you know what I'm asking?" The call ended on a positive note, with Trump saying of Zelensky's request for a visit to Ukraine, "Okay, we can work that out," then adding, "I look forward to seeing you in Washington and maybe in Poland because I think we are going to be there at that time."

The whistleblower complaint alleges that Trump instructed Vice President Mike Pence to call off a planned trip to Ukraine, and alleges that it had been "made clear" to US officials that "the President did not want to meet with Mr. Zelensky until he saw how Zelensky 'chose to act' in office."

Schiff: "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. But as it does represent a real betrayal, there's nothing the president says here that is in America's interest after all."

Analysis: This concluding quote may have further confused viewers. Schiff suggested here that he had just provided listeners with what "the president says," though he had added in things that Trump did not actually say.

A 'parody'?

Later in the hearing, Republican Rep. Mike Turner criticized Schiff's comments, saying that "sometimes fiction is better than the actual words or the text."

"But luckily the American public are smart," Turner said. "They have the transcript. They've read the conversation. They know when someone's just making it up."

Schiff responded by saying that his summary of Trump's call was "meant to be at least part in parody," a claim Trump's campaign also criticized. Schiff had not clearly distinguished the serious parts of his analysis from the supposed "parody."

Schiff's post-hearing response

Asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Thursday whether he regretted saying what he did, Schiff said, "No, I think everyone understood -- and my GOP colleagues may feign otherwise. But when I said, suggested, that it was as if the President said, 'Listen carefully, because I'm only gonna tell you seven more times' -- that I was mocking the President's conduct."

Schiff continued to stand by the comments on Friday morning.

"It was entirely clear in context of Chairman Schiff's opening statement that he was not misleading anyone. He began that portion of his statement by saying, 'In essence, what the President Trump communicates is this,' and then proceeded to describe, accurately, the message the President communicated on the call," Schiff spokesman Patrick Boland said in an email.

Boland added: "When his Republican colleagues suggested they had been confused about that portion, he clarified further that he was not reading the transcript. The suggestions that he was misleading gives credence to the absurd attacks from the President and his allies in their desperate effort to distract from their wrongdoing."

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