Politics & Policy

The Immoderate Adam Schiff

Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-CA). (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
His soft-spoken style obscures a down-the-line partisan Democrat.

For a long time, the nation’s political reporters had a uniform opinion about Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. The New Yorker wrote that until the election of Trump, Schiff “was known in Washington as a milquetoast moderate.” The New York Times described him as “more labradoodle than Doberman.” McClatchy News Service said Schiff had “worked for years to avoid” the label of partisan. The Washington Post called him a “mild-mannered centrist.”

Schiff is moderate in the sense that he rarely shouts or pounds the table, and he usually speaks so softly and gently that he could have been an easy-listening FM-station deejay. And it’s not that hard to look like “the moderate” when you’re standing in between Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters in the California delegation to Congress.

But if one means “moderate” in the sense of occasionally or intermittently defying his party’s positions or orthodoxy . . . then Schiff really isn’t all that moderate at all. He’s a standard-issue liberal California Democrat, habitually critical of Republicans and slow to criticize members of his own party, with exactly the positions one would expect from a congressman representing Hollywood. What’s more, Schiff’s fervent appetite for chasing down every lead in the Russia investigation, no matter how far-fetched, has led him to some not-so-moderate positions.

Since the 2016 election, Schiff’s public life has been nearly all Russia, all the time, and he often makes bold-sounding accusations that don’t line up with the publicly available evidence. (Many Democrats believe that Schiff, as a member of the Intelligence Committee, has seen some sort of bombshell evidence that the rest of us have not.)

“There is circumstantial evidence of collusion,” Schiff told Chuck Todd when the investigation began in March 2017. “There is direct evidence, I think, of deception.” But by December, Schiff no longer had any doubts:

The Russians offered help, the campaign accepted help. The Russians gave help and the president made full use of that help. And that is pretty damning, whether it is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of conspiracy or not.

By February 2018, Schiff went even further, telling reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, “There is already, in my view, ample evidence in the public domain on the issue of collusion if you’re willing to see it.” (Collusion is not one of those “Magic Eye” illusion puzzles that you have to struggle to make sense of.) He cited former low-level Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos pleading guilty to lying to the FBI; Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort meeting with a Russian attorney at Trump Tower in June 2016; Trump’s quip in a campaign rally,when he asked the Russians in July 2016 to hack Clinton and find her “30,000 emails that are missing” from her personal email server; and Michael Flynn pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about meetings with Russian officials during the transition.

“All of this is evidence of collusion,” Schiff told reporters. “Now, I’ve never said that there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s for Bob Mueller to decide. But to say there’s no evidence of collusion, you’d have to ignore all this.”

One is left wondering: If all of these figures were conspiring with the Russian government, why hasn’t Mueller charged any of them with crimes relating to helping Russia interfere with the 2016 election? Instead, Mueller has brought charges of lying to investigators, tax evasion, and non-campaign-related money laundering. And if evidence was piling up, proving that the president and/or his top staff had really colluded with a hostile government to win the election, wouldn’t Mueller want to see Trump removed from office as quickly as possible? Mueller’s investigation has gone on for a year.

Schiff’s certainty that Moscow’s sinister hands are pulling the strings in American politics has led him down some investigative dead ends. In January, Schiff and Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, contending that Russian “bots” were promoting the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo, referring to a memo compiled by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes. Four days later, Twitter’s general counsel sent this response:

Our initial inquiry, based on available data, has not identified any significant activity connected to Russia with respect to tweets posting original content to this hashtag. . . . We further note that #ReleaseTheMemo was also used by several prominent, verified U.S. accounts on the evening of January 18. Typically, hashtag use by high-profile accounts, including those with high numbers of followers, plays a role in driving conversations around a hashtag on Twitter.

The response from Facebook’s legal counsel contended that the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag had manifested mostly on Twitter.

Several days later, Feinstein and Schiff complained that the companies had dodged their questions, contending that Twitter ignored important evidence by limiting its analysis to original content. “We cannot wait another year to learn how Kremlin-linked trolls and bots are currently exploiting your platforms to influence debates going on in Congress today,” they fumed.

Schiff received surprisingly little grief for a phone call in April 10, 2017, that was allegedly from Andriy Parubiy, the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament. The caller laid out an elaborate tale of how the Russian government obtained embarrassing naked photos of Trump during the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013, and then used them to blackmail Trump. Schiff listened and concluded, “Well, thank you very much. We’ll be back in touch with you through our staff, to make arrangements to obtain these materials for our committee and for the FBI. I appreciate your reaching out to us.”

The entire call was a hoax by two Russian pranksters, that country’s version of The Jerky Boys. Schiff’s end of the conversation was mostly him being polite and asking about the spelling of names and corroboration of the elaborate claims, not quite an exhibition of foolish gullibility the Russians contended it was. But it’s hard not to wonder just how much scrutiny Schiff and his staff give to anyone who shows up claiming to have inside information about dirty deals between Trump and the Russians.

Schiff’s wariness about Russia took a while to develop. He joined Twitter in 2009 but never mentioned Russia on that platform until August 2013. (If Schiff objected to President Obama’s “the 1980s called, they wanted their foreign policy back” zinger to Mitt Romney in a 2012 presidential debate, he kept it to himself.) In 2013, Schiff appeared on RT, Russian state television, touting legislation he co-sponsored to make the FISA court more transparent. By 2018, Schiff was denouncing RT as the “Kremlin’s propaganda outfit.”

Technically, Schiff would count as a hawk, but he’s a familiar kind of Democratic hawk, the kind that is comfortable with military actions launched by Democratic presidents and wary about ones launched by Republican ones.

Schiff’s lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, based upon his voting positions, is 4.8 out of a possible 100. A few irate progressives have tried to write “Schiff isn’t really one of us” pieces, but they’ve pulled muscles reaching for examples of the California congressman deviating from the party line or liberal orthodoxy. Yes, he voted for the Iraq War in 2003, but so did 40 percent of House Democrats. He accepted donations from Raytheon PAC and Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Orbital ATK! (Ted Kennedy loved defense contractors who had facilities in Massachusetts, too, and no one revoked his liberal card over that.) He voted to arm Syrian rebels! (That was in line with the Obama administration’s position.) After the Bataclan massacre, he supported military force against ISIS! (Er, yeah.) He voted for the original authorization for use of military force after 9/11! (Yes, so did every member of both parties except one.)

Technically, Schiff would count as a hawk, but he’s a familiar kind of Democratic hawk, the kind that is comfortable with military actions launched by Democratic presidents and wary about ones launched by Republican ones. He offered some quiet praise for Trump’s strikes against Syrian targets in 2017 and 2018 but argued that the president didn’t have the proper authority to launch those strikes: “It’s very dangerous to establish and continue a precedent where the president can basically make war and Congress is no longer a relevant decision maker or check on the executive [branch].”

Schiff is seen as generally pro-Israel, but he supported the Iran deal. Asked by NPR in 2015 about why “AIPAC or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many people in Israel” were so skeptical of the Iran deal, Schiff said he “wrestled with” the question and concluded, “There may have been very different expectations about the kind of deal that could emerge with Iran. . . . The threat is so proximate, so existential that their perspective is different.”

Schiff’s criticisms of the Obama administration or Hillary Clinton were few and far between. In November 2017, Schiff tweeted, “Obama was smart, scandal-free, and restored our economy.” In 2011, in an official statement, he dismissed the investigation of the Fast and Furious gun-smuggling scandal as “politically motivated attacks on Attorney General Eric Holder” and “a meritless distraction from the important work of the Department of Justice.”

When the scandal of the IRS giving extra scrutiny to Tea Party and other conservative groups broke in 2013, Schiff called for an investigation going back into the Bush administration. He cited an IRS investigation of a church in his district in 2005 and suggested the issue might have been a “systematic problem within the IRS that transcends administrations.”

When Schiff does bring himself to criticize a Democrat, it’s usually long after anything significant can be done.

Schiff dismissed the House’s special committee investigating the Benghazi attacks as “a colossal waste of time” and concluded “politics played no part in the initial intelligence assessments after the attack.” During the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, Schiff said that her use of a private server was “lawful at the time and a mistake” and that “the rules allowed her to use a private server as long as she preserved her e-mails, and she did.” In 2017, when the Justice Department opened an investigation into a 2010 deal in which Hillary Clinton and the U.S. State Department allowed the sale of American uranium-mining facilities to Russia’s state atomic-energy company, Schiff again dismissed it as much ado about nothing: “This looks a lot to me like a redux of Benghazi. This investigation is starting again for political purpose.” In a Politico interview, he dismissed “sideshow investigations of FISA abuse.”

When Schiff does bring himself to criticize a Democrat, it’s usually long after anything significant can be done. Six months after Obama left office, Schiff found the former president’s handling of Russia lacking. In June 2017, he declared, “I think the Obama administration should have done a lot more when it became clear that not only was Russia intervening, but it was being directed at the highest levels of the Kremlin.” In February, during an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell at the Council on Foreign Relations, he said that the Obama administration hadn’t responded forcefully enough to North Korea’s hacking of Sony in 2014. “I think that others around the world watched that and determined that cyber is a cost-free intervention,” he told her.

But Schiff may be inclined to believe the worst about those on the other side of the aisle; for a “moderate” “centrist” guy who isn’t partisan, Schiff has a hard time finding Republicans he likes. He was a reliable critic of George W. Bush, denouncing the “shocking politicization” of the Justice Department under his presidency. In 2008, he voted to investigate and consider impeachment of President Bush for the Iraq War. He recalls Vice President Dick Cheney as “disdainful” of him and the California delegation.

In an August 31, 2015, interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Schiff blamed George W. Bush — out of office for seven years — for instability in Iraq and the rise of ISIS. He also offered this regrettable assessment of the threat ISIS posed:

Tapper: Is ISIS capable of carrying out a large-scale mass-casualty attack on the U.S.? You said they’re focused on quantity, not quality. Could they do quality? Could they do a big, large-scale attack if they wanted to?

Schiff: At present, I would say probably not. The part of our infrastructure that I worry about the most is still our aircraft. I don’t think our aircraft are anywhere near as secure as they should be.

Three months later, two jihadists who were inspired by but not trained by ISIS killed 14 people and seriously injured 22 others in an attack in San Bernardino, Calif. Seven months after that, a jihadist who sore allegiance to ISIS killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Florida.

Numerous Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee declined to comment on Schiff, but in the past year, a few members publicly expressed exasperation with him for suddenly becoming the face of “The Resistance” and a perpetual presence on television news.

“This new iteration of Adam is not the Adam I know,” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican on the Intelligence Committee, told McClatchy in April 2017.

In a March interview with Chris Wallace, Representative Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.) more or less dismissed the congressional investigations of Russia’s attempts to influence 2016 election:

Executive branch investigations have more credibility, they have more tools, and that’s what I think what my fellow citizens ought to be waiting for and have confidence in. Not congressional investigations that are run by guys running for the Senate in California who never met a camera they didn’t fall in love with.

For a few months, Schiff’s sudden high profile had some California Democrats wondering if he wanted to challenge Feinstein in the 2018 primary, but he declined. Asked about running for speaker if Democrats win the House in the midterm elections, Schiff told Politico, “Well, I don’t know what my future holds.”

Schiff’s stances and coverage demonstrate how many reporters in the national media are cheap dates when it comes to the labels “centrist,” “independent,” or “moderate.” Just about every Republican member of Congress who weighs in on the Russia investigation gets characterized as “partisan,” but somehow Schiff keeps escaping that label.

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