Over the last two years, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, has been a constant target of President Donald Trump’s ire.
Recently, Trump has focused almost entirely on a statement Schiff made to the committee last month in which he gave his own interpretation of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Schiff’s controversial statement included what he said was “the essence” of what the President communicated to Zelensky, rather than the “exact transcribed version of the call.”
Since then, the President’s characterization of Schiff – while always negative – has shifted dramatically, with Trump referring to Schiff’s comments as illegal, criminal or treasonous at least 8 times. He has even threatened to sue Schiff.
House Republicans, taking up the President’s charge to go after Schiff, on Monday worked to force a House floor vote on a resolution to censure the Democrat “for certain misleading conduct” regarding his characterization of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.
As Trump has repeatedly blasted Schiff for the inaccuracy of his comments, many of his own remarks about Schiff have been untrue. Here are the facts around Schiff’s remarks and the criticism from Trump and his allies.
Schiff’s comments ‘illegal’
After Schiff’s statement to Congress, Trump began slamming Schiff for making up lines that were not contained in the (rough) transcript Trump had released the day prior, going so far as to suggest Schiff be arrested for treason.
Facts First: While it’s fair for Trump to be miffed about Schiff’s comments at a congressional committee meeting – Schiff’s mix of near-quotes from Trump, his own analysis, and supposed “parody” was at the very least confusing – Schiff’s words were not illegal, much less “treason.”
The Constitution also has a specific definition of treason that Schiff’s comments do not come close to satisfying.
See here for our full fact check and analysis of what Schiff said.
The timing of Schiff’s comments
Trump soon began telling a completely different story to explain Schiff’s remarks. In this new account, Schiff had only made these comments because he never thought Trump would ever release a transcript – but Trump outsmarted him by later doing so, and he was “very embarrassed.”
Facts First: Schiff made his comments about Trump’s call with Zelensky the day after Trump released the rough transcript, not before. Before he started claiming that Schiff did not expect a transcript to be released, Trump had complained that Schiff did not read the transcript available to him.
Recently, Trump has renewed his calls for Schiff to be punished, deploying a new tactic. The day of Schiff’s statement to Congress, he shared a clip of it on Twitter. Although the Constitution includes a specific provision that allows members of Congress to speak freely during official meetings, Trump claims Twitter is not protected under the clause and as such Schiff should be prosecuted for fraud.
On October 18, Trump said: “I understand he has immunity, but he doesn’t have immunity when he puts it on his Twitter, which he did.”
Facts First: The constitutional provision that gives Schiff immunity from prosecution over his comments in Congress also gives him immunity over his tweet of a video of those comments, experts say.
Per a Congressional Research Service report, the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause has also been interpreted “to include all ‘legislative acts’ undertaken by Members or their aides.”
Trump is partially right; Were Schiff to have tweeted his rendition of the call or other inaccurate characterizations of the President outside of the context of his congressional duties, it would not be considered a protected legislative act. However, because the tweet was of Schiff’s speech to Congress, Schiff remains immune from prosecution over it.
“Rep. Schiff is protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution from being questioned ‘in any other place,’” said William Banks, a law professor at Syracuse University. “The protection clearly extends to the offending Tweets.”
Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale, said he doubted any challenge to Schiff’s immunity would hold up in court, saying, “I see absolutely no indication that the Roberts court would modify this foundational principle of the First Amendment.”