Media Keep Giving Adam Schiff the Benefit of a Doubt

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On the first night of the Senate impeachment trial, Politico dropped a bombshell: “Schiff may have mischaracterized Parnas evidence, documents show.”

What followed was a fascinating story that raised another question: How many times does the California congressman who spearheaded the Democrats’ impeachment effort -- and is prosecuting the case in the Senate -- have to mislead the public before the press stops cutting him so much slack?

In the last three years, Adam Schiff has dramatically raised his profile by aggressively attempting to show that President Trump is a Russian agent or has abused his power when it comes to Ukraine. Along the way, he’s racked up a record of distortions and untruths that in a less partisan  era would have utterly undermined his credibility among journalists.

In this latest case, Schiff sent a letter to House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler alleging that Lev Parnas, the now-indicted associate of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, “continued to try to arrange a meeting with [Ukrainian] President Zelensky.”

The trouble is that the text messages underlying this accusation only refer to “trying to get us mr Z.” Politico’s reporting establishes that mysterious Mr. Z in this instance almost certainly refers to Mykola Zlochevsky, the founder of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that gave Joe Biden’s son a lucrative sinecure on his company’s board of directors. Oops.

And yet, Politico apparently felt the need to contextualize its own scoop with the tiresome “Republicans pounce” trope. In the opening paragraph, Politico describes what Schiff did as “a possible error the GOP will likely criticize as another example of the Democrats’ rushed effort to impeach President Donald Trump.” It seems the problem is not that in his rush to make headlines Schiff committed a humiliating blunder -- or possibly tried to mislead the public in an attempt to make the case for impeachment look stronger than it is. The real problem is that Republicans might use this error to criticize Democrats.

This is exactly the kind of treatment that in recent years has caused Republicans to openly disdain the press. Just last week, the media got its collective dander up because Arizona Sen. Martha McSally brushed off CNN reporter Manu Raju by calling him a “liberal hack.” Fellow CNN employee Anderson Cooper devoted four minutes of airtime to denouncing McSally, saying her comment revealed “her contempt for professionalism and one of democracy’s core tenets.”

The problem here is that there’s at least one example in which McSally’s brush-off seemed a pretty accurate description of Raju’s journalism, and it’s no surprise that the story involved Adam Schiff. On Dec. 8, 2017, Manu Raju and fellow CNN reporter Jeremy Herb released a report that stunned Washington: Multiple sources had confirmed the existence of an email showing that Donald Trump Jr. had been given advance access to a trove of emails that were hacked from Clinton confidant John Podesta. It was potential evidence that the president’s son was colluding with Russians. CNN’s scoop was soon matched, which is not the same thing as being confirmed, by CBS and NBC.

The story fell apart within a few hours. It seems the reporters got the date wrong on the access email Trump Jr. received; he got it after the Podesta emails were already public. CNN later admitted it never saw the original email it was reporting on and relied on an anonymous source to say what the email said. But if you were paying attention, that source may have been far from anonymous. On a related matter, a spokesman for Schiff, then the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Politico “that neither he nor his staff leaked any ‘non-public information’” about Donald Trump Jr.’s testimony before the panel. It was classic example of what journalists call a “non-denial denial.”

At least one Republican congressional office told me that they cut off all access to Raju months before his report on Trump Jr.’s email imploded because it had been obvious to them that he was “Schiff’s mouthpiece.” In retrospect, it looks like a defensible move, especially when you consider that CNN didn’t retract Raju’s story – it merely rewrote it so as to make it pointless – and didn’t penalize Raju or anyone involved in reporting or editing the story.

That was two years ago. In the meantime, this drama has played itself out again. And again. On Sept. 17, 2019, as impeachment was starting to bubble up thanks to a federal whistleblower’s accusations, Schiff went on MSNBC and declared, “We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower. We would like to.” In early October, The New York Times reported that the whistleblower had been in regular contact with Schiff’s staff on the House Intelligence Committee and Schiff had been informed about it. In this instance, Schiff straight-up lied and the Washington Post fact checker dutifully slapped him with “four Pinocchios” as it detailed Schiff’s additional misleading statements on the whistleblower.

In December, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz issued a report  documenting serious abuse of the process for obtaining Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants by the FBI, relating to the surveillance of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. The report largely confirmed many of the same concerns reported on in 2018 by then-Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes.

At the time, the media and much of institutional Washington largely pooh-poohed the so-called “Nunes memo,” and Schiff played a key role in this. First, he tried to suppress Nunes’ memo – Democrats on the committee voted against making it public on the grounds it risked national security. Soon after it was released, however, Schiff released his own memo in response.

A GOP press release noted that during Trump’s first year in office, Schiff spent just short of 21 hours on television, nearly all of it talking about Trump and Russia. He was famously loose-lipped in front of the camera – Schiff went so far as to assert there was “direct evidence” the Trump campaign collaborated with Russia. Even after the Mueller report concluded the opposite, Schiff was still insisting that “undoubtedly there is collusion.”

None of this seems to have dented the deference Schiff continues to receive from establishment media outlets.

Last week, The Los Angeles Times, Schiff’s hometown paper, ran a glowing profile applauding him “for his almost sentimental belief in the system.” The fawning piece quoted friends comparing Schiff to Mr. Rogers, and fueled speculation that he might run for president someday. It made virtually no mention of the controversies that have dogged him for the last three years, as he’s elevated his stature by aggressively going after Trump.

Trump does seem like a special case when it comes to policing honesty. However, the media have long portrayed Washington as a place where Democrats never screw up and Republicans always “pounce” – and these double standards were on display well before Trump descended down that golden Trump Tower escalator.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.



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