Vilification is one of the primary weapons in Donald Trump’s political arsenal. Over the four years of the Trump presidency, perhaps no one was subjected to more of it than Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and—more pertinently—the lead manager of the House impeachment team during Trump’s first Senate trial. Indeed, Schiff’s name was almost never mentioned by the former president without the accompaniment of some juvenile taunt: “pencil neck,” “Shifty Schiff,” “Little Adam Schiff,” “crooked Adam Schiff,” and even “Adam Schitt.”
Of course, such crude appellations tell us far more about the appalling character of Donald Trump than anything else. But Trump is not alone. Surprisingly, even some ostensible anti-Trumpers have been furiously dumping on the congressman. To Eli Lake, Schiff is a “showman playing the role of statesman,” and for leveling various allegations against Trump that he could never prove, he’s “the boy who cried collusion.” To Jonah Goldberg, Schiff is a “dishonorable and dishonest hack” with a “gift for flinging hyperpartisan innuendo while seeming to be a studious and serious legislator.”
Is any of this right? Even if Schiff is not the villain of Trump’s nightmares, does he nonetheless deserve some of the incoming that has landed on his head?
One place to begin looking for answers is Schiff’s own new book, Midnight in Washington, a lengthy—and quite engrossing—political memoir.
Schiff begins with his hybrid political lineage. His father’s family were devoted Democrats of the FDR school. His mother’s family were ardent Republicans, in the mold of the Rockefellers and the Lodges. From this mixed marriage, Schiff emerged as a moderate Democrat.
As a sophomore in college, he had a formative experience: A trip through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin presented him with “living proof of the dehumanization of Communism” along with an abiding appreciation of his own country, where both political parties, at least back then, “shared a commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual.”
After Stanford, Harvard Law, a federal clerkship, and a short stint in private practice, Schiff became a prosecutor in the office of the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California. After trying dozens upon dozens of garden-variety criminal cases—bank robberies, drug deals, bribery, embezzlement, and so forth—he made a name for himself as the successful lead prosecutor in the third trial, after the first two had ended inconclusively, of Richard Miller, an FBI agent who had become a Soviet mole.
Frustrated with the limitations of his position, Schiff quit his prosecutor’s post after three years and settled in Los Angeles, where he gravitated to politics. He lost two races for the state assembly, a distinctly demoralizing experience, before getting his break: At age 36 he won a seat in the state senate, where he was soon to chair the judiciary committee, gaining a reputation for fairness and integrity by leading it in a bipartisan manner. In 1999, he got another break and was recruited to run for Congress, trouncing a Republican incumbent in what was then the most expensive race in House history.
The qualities that Schiff exhibited in the California Senate put him in demand in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2007, thanks to his prosecutorial skills, Schiff was invited to take a seat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). The work of the committee at that juncture was largely nonpartisan and Schiff closely and amicably collaborated with another California legislator, the Republican Devin Nunes.
Then came Benghazi, the September 11, 2012, incident in which militants overran a U.S. diplomatic mission, killing four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. After two years of wide-ranging inquiry, HPSCI issued a bipartisan report that debunked the myriad conspiracy theories that had cropped up, including especially those maintaining that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had reduced security around the facility and hampered a rescue effort.
But that finding was highly inconvenient to Republicans anxious to tar Clinton as she prepared for a 2016 presidential bid. Soon enough, comity and amity went out the door. Kevin McCarthy and right-wing members of the Republican caucus leaned on Speaker Boehner to form a new select committee to keep the issue alive. Reluctantly, Schiff agreed to serve on it. Most of the theater came from the majority Republican side, including calling Clinton herself for a grueling eleven hours of testimony. But Schiff nonetheless helped to produce some of the other more notable moments, as in his withering questioning in the deposition of the Republican star witness, General Michael Flynn, who had been the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama until he was fired for incompetence.
Although the investigation failed in its bad-faith objective of damaging Clinton for her role in the Benghazi affair, it succeeded nonetheless by incidentally bringing to light the fact that she had used a private email server for official business, which, as Schiff notes, would “ultimately contribute to her undoing” at the hands of Trump.
Initially, Schiff thought the Trump presidency an impossibility, giving the “ugliest of American campaigns no chance of success.” He writes that “I will forever be humbled by that blithe miscalculation.” But with Trump as president, the pivotal action for Schiff became investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 race.
Once again, the House intelligence committee was a central venue. Unsurprisingly, given the Benghazi precedent, what began as a purportedly bipartisan search for truth rapidly devolved into relentless Republican efforts to conceal Trump’s misconduct, and, as Schiff writes, “not just conceal it, but to construct a counternarrative that would devastate every truth in its path.” In this, Devin Nunes, in partnership with team Trump and conducting his bizarre “midnight run” to the White House, led the way.
America’s intelligence agencies had unanimously agreed that the Russians, under Vladimir Putin’s direction, preferred Trump to Clinton and had taken a variety of steps to advance that preference. “There was no way to know,” writes Schiff,
whether the Russian operation had changed the outcome of the race that would ultimately be decided by just seventy thousand votes scattered among a few key states. Nor could we know whether the Russians had engaged in this unprecedented attack on our democracy on their own or had had the help of Americans, but I was determined to find out.
Finding out would consume Schiff’s next four years, as the multiple strands of the Russia investigation unfolded, with Robert Mueller’s criminal inquiry and the House’s own. Mueller’s findings, released in April 2019, should have been devastating to Trump but the potential explosiveness was defused by the machinations of Attorney General Bill Barr, who, serving as the president’s Roy Cohn, skillfully misled the public about what Mueller had found.
If the wind went out of the sails of any move for impeachment, a gale blew in with Trump’s “perfect” July 25, 2019 phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he attempted to extort a political favor—the smearing of Joe Biden—in exchange for U.S. military aid. Schiff reprises the entire affair in close detail and also recounts his own central role as the leader of the House team that presented the impeachment case to the Senate. Though the events are familiar to anyone who paid attention to the drama, Schiff supplies the gripping inside story, including his conflicts with fellow Democrat House Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler, who comes across as highly knowledgeable about the fine points of impeachment but also as a thin-skinned hothead. As a first draft of recent history by a pivotal inside player, Midnight in Washington is a source that will stand the test of time.
The abuse hurled at Schiff by Eli Lake and Jonah Goldberg—in unseemly synchrony with Donald Trump—rests in part on the proposition that there was no “collusion” between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia despite Schiff’s repeated claims to the contrary. This is rubbish.
As Robert Mueller stated in his report, unlike conspiracy, the term collusion “is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law.” Mueller did not find a conspiracy. Nor did he find “coordination”—another term that “does not have a settled definition in federal criminal law” but that Mueller’s team took to mean something “more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests” (emphasis added). But of such informed and responsive interplay between Russia and the Trump campaign there was plenty, as Mueller’s report makes clear.
Far from being “the boy who cried collusion,” Schiff documents chapter and verse of the nefarious behavior, taking the reader through one sketchy episode after another. There was, to begin with, in April 2016, the Russian approach, through an intermediary, to one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, George Papadopoulos, in which they told him that they were in possession of “dirt” about Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, presumably hacked, with the implication that they could aid the campaign by releasing them at strategic moments.
In June 2016, a Russian lawyer approached Donald Trump Jr., using a business contact as an intermediary. The intermediary asserted that the Russians had “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” and “be very useful to your father,” adding that “this is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” A few minutes later, Donald Jr. responded, “If it’s what you say I love it.” The secret meeting that followed in Trump Tower in late June was deemed of sufficient importance that Donald Jr. was joined by both Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, his campaign chairman. The Russian lawyer ultimately provided nothing meaningful at the meeting—indeed, all the intrigue in advance and the meeting itself might seem to have been a shambling waste of time—but the Trump campaign made its eagerness to collude with Moscow unequivocally clear, and of equal or even greater importance, Moscow learned of that eagerness.
Then, in late July 2016, Trump directly implored Moscow to intervene in the race: “Russia, if you’re listening,” he said to a roomful of reporters, “I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” As Schiff notes, “the Russians were in fact listening, and they attempted to hack a private server belonging to Clinton’s personal office only hours later.”
One could go on much further listing the material Schiff provides, recounting the ties of campaign chairman Paul Manafort to a Russian intelligence operative or Trump’s extensive business dealings with Moscow, which he lied about over the course of his campaign, giving the Russians ready-made kompromat with which to blackmail him if the need arose.
In the final analysis, the evidence of collusion (or for that matter “coordination” or “conspiracy”), as strong as it was, remains incomplete. As the Mueller report makes evident, albeit in oblique language, Trump and his team obstructed justice on numerous occasions, making it impossible for the full truth about Trump’s criminality to emerge.
It must also be acknowledged that Schiff has made mistakes in the course of his investigations. As Eli Lake pointed out in a February 2020 article in Commentary, Schiff repeated elements of the now-discredited “Steele dossier” in a congressional hearing, leveling charges against the Trump aide Carter Page that did not pan out and for which Schiff never apologized. Schiff and his staff defended the continued issuance of FISA warrants against Page, warrants known now to be defective for relying on the Steele dossier, when there was reason for skepticism.
The damage to Page should not be understated. But these are minor transgressions when measured against the entirety of Schiff’s record. It is both perverse and a calumny—a case of anti-anti-Trump derangement syndrome perhaps?—to chime in with the scurrilous Donald Trump and call Schiff a “liar,” as does the title of Eli Lake’s most recent Commentary piece, or “dishonorable and dishonest,” as does Jonah Goldberg. Indeed, Adam Schiff is one of the few genuine heroes of the Trump era. Throughout the past five years, in the face of unremitting abuse and even death threats, he has worked with cool and measured eloquence to expose Trump’s demagoguery and criminal conduct, seeking to protect the nation from further depredations by the most dangerous and depraved president in our history.