As many news outlets have reported, the Republican-led House of Representatives introduced a resolution last week attempting to censure and fine Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, for, among other things, his efforts, statements, and actions to investigate and confirm collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian Federation regarding the 2016 election. That resolution (essentially a scattershot, inflammatory manifesto of right-wing grievances) was put to a vote on June 14, 2023, and it failed by a vote of 225-196, with several Republicans crossing the aisle to vote against their own party. Five Democrats and two Republicans voted “present” in connection with the failed resolution.
With those facts in mind, please read this article by the New York Times capitol reporter, Karoun Demirjian. After reciting the introductory facts, Demirjian writes the following:
The vote was 225 to 196 to table, or kill, a resolution by Representative Anna Paulina Luna, a Florida Republican who has allied herself closely with the former president. Twenty Republicans joined Democrats in voting to sideline it, with another two G.O.P. lawmakers voting “present” to avoid registering a position. In a surprise, five Democrats also voted “present.”
[W]hile the measure, which accused Mr. Schiff of willfully lying for political gain, was highly partisan, it raised complicated questions about accountability and revenge. Mr. Schiff’s claims that there was “ample evidence” that Mr. Trump colluded with Russia were undermined by the conclusions of the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who wrote in his report that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Republicans have wielded that determination to accuse Mr. Schiff of lying.
There are two errors here. The first is the assertion that it was a “surprise” that five Democrats also voted “present.” The clear and unmistakable implication from Demirjian’s article is that Schiff did not have the full support of his caucus in opposing the resolution. That’s quite wrong, and the reason why it is wrong is explained below.
But the language bolded in the subsequent paragraph is far more troubling. Demirjian states as a fact—not an opinion, not a viewpoint, but as a fact—that Rep. Schiff’s claims were undermined by the conclusions of special counsel Mueller. That statement is further emphasized by Demirjian in her sentence stating, “Republicans have wielded that determination to accuse Mr. Schiff of lying.”
Before we get to the substance of that paragraph by Demirjian, take a look at the following analysis piece, on the very same subject, written by Steve Benen for MSNBC. Benen writes:
[W]hether Republicans want to hear this or not, the seriousness of Trump’s Russia scandal has not been discredited, and when Schiff said there was “ample evidence” connecting the former president’s political operation and his Russian benefactors, he was correct. In fact, a Senate Intelligence Committee’s report — written in part by the panel’s then-Republican majority — at one point literally described a “direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.”
Benen also addresses the fact that five Democrats voted "present." But unlike Demirjian, he actually explains why they voted the way they did:
If you look at the roll call, you’ll note that five House Democrats voted “present” Wednesday, but that’s not because they’re Schiff critics. Those five members serve on the House Ethics Committee, and as a Politico report noted, “Democratic ethics panel members generally vote present on any ethics matters that come before the House.”
So, let’s be clear. It was no “surprise” that five Democrats voted “present.” Contrary to the implication in Demirjian’s New York Times piece, it was simply the fact that those Democrats were following protocol as members of the Ethics Committee. But anyone following Demirjian’s reporting would have instantly (and reasonably) concluded that five Democrats believed, somehow, that Schiff may have been culpable and deserving of censure.
That’s not just sloppy reporting on Demirjian’s part, it’s tantamount to misinformation. But let’s presume it was unintentional and that Demirjian was simply negligent in failing to determine why those five Democrats voted in that fashion. What is neither unintentional nor negligent is her assertion as a matter of fact that Schiff’s claims were “undermined” by the Mueller report and its conclusions. That is at best a matter of serious dispute and at worst a complete mischaracterization. But in either case it is an opinion, not a fact.
As Benen explains, anyone who has actually read the Mueller report (and the Senate intelligence committee report describing Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election) will come away with the clear understanding that there existed multiple and numerous knowing avenues of communication between the Trump campaign and the Russian intelligence services regarding the 2016 election, specifically Russia’s intention and efforts to influence the outcome. As Benen has previously written:
As regular readers know, investigations from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee documented the extent to which Trump and his team welcomed, received, and benefited from Russian campaign assistance. (They also obstructed the investigation into this assistance — by some measures, 10 times.)
The evidence also showed there was coordination and high-level connections between Trump’s political operation and those responsible for the attack on our elections. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report at one point literally described a “direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.”
Following Trump’s lead, Republicans have widely branded the Mueller investigation (and by implication, the Republicans’ own Senate investigation) a “hoax,” implying that the entire effort was utterly groundless, and a political “smear.” They have to do this because the implications otherwise are quite damning: Trump in fact conspired with known Russian sources to engineer the election’s outcome. That would make Donald Trump a traitor in the eyes of most Americans.
But repetition of that lie has already obtained its desired result: the Republican rank and file refuse to believe what is actually spelled out in detail in both the Mueller report and the Senate investigation.
What the New York Times’ “capitol reporter” did here was feed directly into that narrative: namely, that Schiff had been “undermined” by the Mueller report. And to add insult to injury, Demirjian falsely implies that five Democrats may have also felt he was “undermined” by voting “present” on the GOP resolution to censure him. But as Benen and many other investigative reporters have shown, Rep. Schiff wasn’t undermined at all. He was validated.
For example, from Ryan Goodman, writing for Just Security:
The redacted Mueller Report documents a series of activities that show strong evidence of collusion. Or, more precisely, it provides significant evidence that Trump Campaign associates coordinated with, cooperated with, encouraged, or gave support to the Russia/WikiLeaks election interference activities.
In short, there was plenty of evidence of “collusion.” Mueller, however, was looking for crimes provable beyond reasonable doubt. As Mueller himself stated, and as reported by Philip Bump for the Washington Post at the time:
“We did not address ‘collusion,’ which is not a legal term. Rather, we focused on whether the evidence was sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy. It was not.”
Nor, pursuant to DOJ policy, was charging Trump with criminal liability even considered by Mueller.
“Based on Justice Department policy and principles of fairness, we decided we would not make a determination as to whether the president committed a crime. That was our decision then and it remains our decision today.”
For example, as Goodman notes, “We don’t know what the Special Counsel’s Office or the FBI have assessed, for example, with respect to whether Trump associates engaged in reciprocal efforts with Russian agents without entering a criminal agreement to do so, whether Americans have been witting or unwitting Russian assets, and what leverage or influence Moscow may have over particular individuals.” Nowhere in Demirjian’s reporting is any acknowledgment of that fact, nor even any mention of the equally damning Senate report at all.
If the implications of Trump’s treachery with Russian intelligence weren’t so grave, this might be forgivable. But they are, and this isn’t. This is worse than lazy journalism. This is misinformation with serious national implications. The only question is whether it’s a product of sheer incompetence or biased intent.