Adam Schiff and the credibility of impeachment

Why We Wrote This

He wasn’t the obvious choice to become the leading face of the Democratic-led House impeachment inquiry. Here’s a look at why Rep. Adam Schiff of California got that role and how he’s done so far.

Carlos Jasso/AP
House intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff speaks next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi regarding the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 15, 2019.

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Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California has an unflappable personality, say colleagues. And that’s a good thing, they add, since he’s increasingly a leading face of the Democratic-led House impeachment inquiry into the president of the United States.

The credibility of the impeachment process, Democrats believe, rests on whether Americans believe it has been methodical and fair. Representative Schiff carries a lot of the responsibility for making that impression.

“The pressure of dealing with that ... is an enormously difficult task,” says Democratic strategist Dan Kanninen.

Representative Schiff is a Harvard-trained lawyer who represents Hollywood in the U.S. House. He hosts an annual comedy fundraiser where he sometimes performs the opening act.

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he’s not the obvious choice to spearhead impeachment. But the whistleblower who complained of President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine came from the intelligence community, and Representative Schiff has Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s confidence.

Republicans say they distrust him. Among other things, they point to his loose interpretation of the famous call between President Trump and Ukraine’s president, performed before a House hearing. The GOP is trying to censure him for it.

Democrats have dismissed the criticism as partisan. But in a process in which credibility is paramount, public perception of integrity and honesty could make all the difference.

He’s a Harvard-trained lawyer who represents Hollywood in Congress. A former prosecutor, he has a meticulous, “coloring within the lines” approach to the law, says one political expert.

Now, he’s become a leading figure – in many ways, the face – of the fourth-ever impeachment inquiry of an American president. It’s a role for which Democrats believe Rep. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, may be very well prepared.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to tap Mr. Schiff to head the probe into whether President Donald Trump tried to coerce Ukraine into investigating a political rival was a vote of confidence in the chairman’s ability to navigate both the investigation and the politics surrounding it. 

Already, he’s fielding blows. This week House Republicans, with the president urging them on, took steps toward formally censuring him for his dramatized public retelling of the infamous July 25 call between Mr. Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. They’ve criticized him for misleading the public about his initial contact with the whistleblower – the unidentified member of the intelligence community who first raised questions about the Trump-Zelenskiy call – and more broadly for the secrecy of the investigation so far.

Mr. Trump has field-tested a number of derogatory nicknames for Mr. Schiff, settling in recent weeks on “Shifty Schiff,” perhaps in an attempt to throw doubt on the congressman’s often pointed observations about the White House in television interviews.

The credibility of the impeachment process, most observers agree, rests on Democrats’ ability to methodically and dispassionately communicate their findings to a deeply partisan American public. Mr. Schiff now carries a huge chunk of that weight. 

“The pressure of dealing with that ... is an enormously difficult task,” says Democratic strategist Dan Kanninen. “This is a process that will test anybody.” 

The “unflappable” Adam Schiff

So far, the impeachment inquiry has been proceeding with head-spinning speed. On Thursday, Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told House investigators that Mr. Trump had rejected the advice of his top diplomats and charged his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, with overseeing American foreign policy on Ukraine. While Mr. Sondland was still testifying, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney gave a rare press briefing in which he said the administration had frozen nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure it to investigate an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had hacked the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“I think Mr. Mulvaney’s acknowledgment means that things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse,” Mr. Schiff commented to reporters afterward. Mr. Mulvaney later walked back his statement.

Mr. Schiff’s role in all this was not a given. The House Judiciary Committee led the charge in the impeachment probes of both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. And Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler presided over the first unofficial hearing of the impeachment inquiry – a spectacle that featured mocking testimony from former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. That hearing could have influenced Ms. Pelosi’s decision to give the House intelligence committee the reins. More likely, Mr. Schiff’s committee landed the assignment because the whistleblower complaint came from the intelligence community. 

Colleagues and political observers alike say Mr. Schiff also has the right temperament for the role. He’s long been known for his calm, almost “boring” persona. (Although for the past 13 years, he’s hosted an annual comedy fundraiser where, “sometimes to the chagrin of the professional comics who perform each year, he is the opening act – and yes, he does write his own jokes,” one aide writes in an email.)

“He’s unflappable. He’s got a good mind,” says Rep. Jackie Speier, a fellow Californian who’s worked with Mr. Schiff on the intelligence committee for years.

During former special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation into Russian interference in 2016, Mr. Schiff was outspoken in his criticism of the president. But until recently, he was reluctant to pursue an impeachment probe – reflecting a prudence that showed in his decision to pass on a long-considered 2016 bid for the U.S. Senate. 

His résumé is oddly fitting for a job as lead investigator in a case involving alleged conspiracy and foreign entities. In 1990, while serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Mr. Schiff prosecuted an FBI agent who was seduced by and sold classified information to a Soviet spy, securing the first-ever conviction of an FBI agent for espionage. Later, in his initial run for Congress, he unseated a Republican who’d helped lead the impeachment probe against Mr. Clinton.

In 2008, Mr. Schiff was tapped to co-chair a congressional panel that investigated two federal judges for misconduct. Both would eventually be impeached and removed from office. 

He approaches these types of matters with a “legal-eagle kind of perspective,” says Larry Becker, a political science professor at California State University, Northridge, who studies Congress and legislative processes. “Schiff was a smart choice.” 

Mistakes along the way

In opening remarks before the testimony of Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, Mr. Schiff gave a loose interpretation of the call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelenskiy. “This is the essence of what the president communicates,” Mr. Schiff said. “‘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?’”

Republicans seized on the “parody” to discredit the chairman. The motion to censure, which has been signed by at least 135 House Republicans and is expected to be brought up on Monday, called the statement “egregiously false and fabricated.” On Twitter, Mr. Trump declared, “It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”

“I wouldn’t have done it,” says veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, though he adds that the response was overblown. 

Perhaps more damning was an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” during which Mr. Schiff told reporter Sam Stein that his committee had not spoken with the whistleblower. A few weeks later, media reports revealed that the whistleblower had approached a House intelligence committee staff member for guidance before filing the complaint with the Intelligence Community inspector general. The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” gave Mr. Schiff’s statement four Pinocchios

Democrats have dismissed the criticisms as partisan. But in a process where credibility is paramount, public perception of integrity and honesty could make all the difference. 

“The real question is how Schiff and the rest of the Democrats come off in the end,” says Margaret Taylor, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former Democratic chief counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Are they going to be a repository for Americans’ trust – or not?”

Weight of history

Over the past two weeks, the intelligence committee has amassed hours of closed-door testimony from career diplomats and administration officials. On Monday, Mr. Trump’s former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, testified that John Bolton, then the national security adviser, had been alarmed at efforts within the White House to pressure Ukraine for political help. On Wednesday, Michael McKinley, a former top State Department aide, told lawmakers he had resigned because of Mr. Trump’s attacks on former Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

The disclosures appear to corroborate the whistleblower’s complaint against Mr. Trump, though Republicans have criticized the secrecy of the process.

“They deny members of Congress, who are lent the power and the voice of the American public, [the ability] to even read what goes on,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday. “Somehow we’re supposed to trust what comes out of that?”

In a letter to his colleagues, Mr. Schiff defended the closed hearings. He pointed out that at the start of both the Nixon and Clinton investigations, independent prosecutors had conducted private interviews of witnesses. Lacking a prosecutor, members of this committee have had to conduct those closed interviews themselves.

“It is of paramount importance to ensure that witnesses cannot coordinate their testimony with one another to match their description of events, or potentially conceal the truth,” he wrote. He said the committee plans to eventually disclose transcripts of all the interviews, redacted for classified information. No date has been specified. 

The committee has been on a grinding schedule so far, with some hearings lasting eight or nine hours. “It’s been very long hours and an amazing amount of incoming,” the Schiff aide says in a phone interview. “He’s splitting his time between caucus meetings, meetings with various committee chairs, conversations with the speaker, and the latest news coming from our district. And he wants to be as involved in every minute of witness testimony as possible.”  

Already, some of his colleagues see a change in him. “He’s grown like anyone would grow under the circumstances,” Representative Speier says. 

“You see more of the weight of history on him,” adds Rep. Ro Khanna, another California Democrat who says Mr. Schiff offered him advice and helped open doors for him when he was new to Congress. “I think that sense of the gravity of the job, the gravity of the responsibility, has hit him more.”

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