AP FACT CHECK: The perils of parodying President Trump

Call it the Schiff riff

He does not like it when a Democrat does the same, at his expense.

For weeks now, Trump has directed blistering criticism at Rep. Adam Schiff for giving an exaggerated account of what the president said in his July 25 phone call with Ukraine's leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Trump has gone so far as to say Schiff's riff shows the impeachment case is invalid.

When it comes to inventing dialogue, Schiff stepped somewhat gingerly on to Trump's turf. He prefaced and concluded his account at a House Intelligence Committee hearing by saying he was giving the “essence” of what Trump said on the phone call and describing its “sum” and “character,” with the “rambling” parts skipped. It was an invitation not to take him literally. Moreover, most of his details were accurate.

Contrast that with Trump slipping into the supposed voices of the “lovers,” as he likes to call two FBI employees who exchanged text messages critical of the president and indeed had an affair.

Here's Trump on Tuesday night at a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, as he entertained his supporters on the subject of Lisa Page and Peter Strzok:

"Lisa, please, tell me you love me. Lisa please. I love you like I've never loved anyone." He went on to float the baseless rumor that one took a restraining order out on the other.

And here's Trump at a Minneapolis rally Oct. 10:

“Oh, I love you so much. I love you, Peter. I love you, too, Lisa. Lisa, I love you. Lisa, Lisa, oh God, I love you, Lisa.”

That prompted Page to break months of silence. “Honestly, his demeaning fake orgasm was really the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she told The Daily Beast.

“How did you get home? I don't remember. How did you get there? I don't remember. Where is the place? I don't remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.’”

During the campaign, Trump shocked many people and delighted supporters by mimicking a reporter whose recollection and reporting from Sept. 11, 2001, did not support Trump's claims that Muslims celebrated on U.S. streets as the World Trade Center towers collapsed from the terrorist attack.

“The poor guy, you ought to see this guy,” Trump said of Serge Kovaleski of The New York Times, jerking his arms in a representation of the reporter's joint disability and misquoting him in a tone of ridicule: “Uh, I don’t know what I said. I don’t remember!”

Trump also makes up quotes from people to convey their admiration of him or to fit into the story he wants to tell.

So it was on Saturday when Trump offered an extended and fantastical account of conversations with his ambassador to Israel and world leaders about his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a step popular with many Israelis, unpopular with many Arabs and provocative on the world stage.

At an American-Israeli conference, he put words in the mouths of monarchs and presidents as he pretended that he was too busy to take calls from leaders who objected to the embassy's relocation and didn't call them back until it was too late.

“So I call: 'Hi, King. What's up? What's happening?' He said, 'I wanted to tell you I didn't like you doing that with Israel.' 'Oh, man! I wish I called you back a little sooner. I'm sorry.'"

He said there were about 40 such calls.

Meantime Trump tweets insults at “lowlife” Schiff, “a corrupt politician who fraudulently made up what I said on the ‘call’" in a “brazen and unlawful act."

This attack is coupled with a consequential falsehood. Trump says he was forced to release the rough White House transcript of his phone call because Schiff had so thoroughly misrepresented it that he had to set the story straight.

But the White House account became public a day before the Schiff riff. Anyone who read the rough transcript could see that the chairman, as he indicated to the committee, was taking liberties with what the public was seeing for itself.

Here are parts Schiff got right in voicing “the essence of what the president communicates":

SCHIFF, mimicking Trump's remark to Zelenskiy: “We've been very good to your country.”

TRUMP, in actual White House summary: “I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine.”

SCHIFF: “But you know what? I don't see much reciprocity here.”

TRUMP: “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 have a favor I want from you, though.”

TRUMP: “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

SCHIFF: “I’m going to put you in touch with people, 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. You’re going to love him, trust me.”

TRUMP: “Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what's happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great.”

Later in the call: “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to· the bottom of it.”

Later again in the call: “I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call.”

Here's where Schiff went beyond what the facts:

SCHIFF: “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. ... And by the way, don’t call me again. I’ll call you when you’ve done what I asked."

TRUMP: He did not ask Zelensky to “make up dirt.” Instead he pressed for an investigation of a theory, already debunked, that Ukraine cooperated with Democrats in the U.S. election. He also wanted Joe Biden and son Hunter investigated because of the son's involvement with a Ukrainian energy company.

Trump said, with couched references to the groundless interference theory and the Bidens: “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine. ... There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you're surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”

Trump did not say “you'd better listen good," or ”I'm going to say this only seven times," or that Zelensky should only call him once he's done what he wanted.

Yet it was clear, through his repetition and blunt words, that Trump's request for a favor was not one to be ignored.

“This is, in sum and character, what the president was trying to communicate with the president of Ukraine,” Schiff said.

When a Republican lawmaker called out Schiff for distorting the call, the Democrat said his account was meant, in part, as a parody.

And afterward, Trump questioned whether Schiff should be tried for treason.


EDITOR'S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.


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