Rep. Adam Schiff, Trump's public prosecutor, says he must be a 'guardian against the worst abuses'

Before answering a question, Rep. Adam B. Schiff pauses as if mentally reviewing what he can say.

On Capitol Hill over the last month, he has become President Trump’s public prosecutor, and — soft-spoken, deliberate, a little stiff — he is nearly the president’s polar opposite.

In seemingly daily appearances on cable television or before the microphones at news conferences, Schiff eschews the usual Washington hyperbole and snarky sound bites. The slow, relentless precision with which he speaks reflects his six years at the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. It also reveals the weight of handling national security secrets for the last two years as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders who, alone among 535 members of the Congress, are privy to the country’s most sensitive intelligence.

Even when Schiff calls the president a liar, he manages to do it with the somber admonishment of a dad schooling an unruly child, as if to say he’s not mad, just disappointed.

“Cherish the trust and hope that was placed in you by virtue of your office,” Schiff, 56, recently advised Trump in a speech, “by never again advancing claims that you know — or should know — are simply not true.”

His suddenly high-profile perch on the House committee looking into possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign has given Schiff a national platform that few can match — both for opportunity and peril.

As one of the Democratic elected officials with the most access to intelligence about Russia’s efforts to influence the election, Schiff has become his party’s most visible spokesperson on the investigation.

“Adam Schiff is the adult in the entire Congress right now on foreign policy and intelligence,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael).

In recent weeks, Schiff has offered a steadily more dire description of the evidence. Last month, he declared that the intelligence showed “circumstantial evidence of collusion” between Russia and Trump associates and “direct evidence of deception.” By last week, that assessment had escalated to “more than circumstantial evidence” of collusion — the sort that would prompt a prosecutor to begin working with a grand jury, Schiff said in interviews.

He laid out that case in the committee’s first, and so far only, public hearing on Russia. Schiff asked for and got triple the amount of time normally allowed for opening statements, and for 15 minutes he set forth the circumstantial evidence of collusion. His recitation was replayed on cable news and liberal-leaning news sites for days.

“You almost get goosebumps when you listen to it,” said fellow committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin), a former prosecutor. “He laid out pretty powerful evidence.”

Schiff’s words, delivered in his careful, measured tones, have made him a hero to many Democrats who almost desperately hope that the Russia investigation will be Trump’s downfall. In the end, however, if the evidence doesn’t back him up, “then going out there and being aggressive is definitely risky,” said UC Berkeley political science professor Eric Schickler.

It takes nothing away from the seriousness of Schiff’s approach — or the subject matter — to note that his position also provides an unexpected, priceless opportunity for a middle-aged, moderate, white male congressman with statewide ambitions to win support from California Democrats who in recent years have increasingly favored more liberal, minority and female candidates.

Already the committee’s inquiry has turned Schiff, once little known outside his Burbank-area district, into one of the most visible members of Congress. Dozens of profiles and articles have been written about him in the last month.

A Stanford- and Harvard-educated attorney, Schiff won notice as a federal prosecutor in 1990 for convicting a former FBI agent, Richard W. Miller, of spying for Moscow, a fact particularly notable in light of current events. Six years later, he won election to the California Senate, where he chaired the Judiciary Committee. In 2000, he was first elected to Congress, winning what had been a Republican-controlled district in what was, at the time, the most expensive House race on record. But his path beyond the House has seemed difficult to discern.

Two years ago, he considered a bid for Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat but decided not to run against the favorite, and eventual winner, Kamala Harris. He is widely expected to try to succeed Sen. Dianne Feinstein if she decides to step down in 2018. Like nearly all his colleagues in California’s huge congressional delegation, however, he has struggled to stand out in a crowd of 53.

Now, he may inadvertently have landed on a springboard to higher office.

The opportunity provided by the Russia hearings could not have been planned. Not only was Trump’s victory in the election unforeseen, but intelligence committees are rarely good vehicles for gaining attention; they deal heavily with classified material, often in closed-door hearings, and the backlash can be fierce for appearing to politicize such matters.

Schiff need look no further than across the committee dais for an object lesson: Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) has struggled to balance his party loyalties with the panel’s mandate and has received widespread criticism, mostly from Democrats, but increasingly from some fellow Republicans as well.

By contrast, even Republican politicians have had few harsh words for Schiff, although some conservative media sites are having a field day.

Roger Stone, Trump’s friend and former lawyer and strategist, who has often figured on lists of Trump associates with possible ties to Russian election meddling, quipped to ABC’s “This Week” that the congressman was “largely full of Schiff."

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently lambasted what he called Schiff’s “diatribe” and “mistruths” during a recent committee hearing.

They represent exceptions, however. More typical is the view of Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), an Intelligence Committee member.

“I know that right now there’s the dispute with him and Devin, and I support Devin,” King said. “Having said that, I’ve always gotten along with Adam. I’m not trying to duck it, he’s just an easy guy to get along with. I don’t think you’ll find much antagonism toward Adam. He’s not that sort of person.”

Nunes has acknowledged that he and the ranking Democrat don't always agree, but he too has not been publicly critical of Schiff. The men have known each other for decades, including the last two years as the top Republican and Democrat on the committee. They share a love of the Oakland Raiders.

As the investigation continues and frustrations rise, however, it remains to be seen whether that accord can last.

“Like it or not, I find myself thrust in the role of having to be a sort of guardian against the worst abuses, potentially, of the administration, but as well a voice on national security issues, because the Republicans are still trying to find their voice,” Schiff said.

That role has included repeated warnings about the danger of Trump’s penchant for falsehoods. The president is squandering his credibility with the American people, and that’s a national security risk, Schiff has often said. As he has framed it, crises will happen and “at some point, the president is going to need to be believed by the country,”

“This is a president who has shown a willingness to live in his own factual world, and what’s more, to misrepresent what the intelligence community has to say,” Schiff said more recently in a meeting with Los Angeles Times reporters and editors. “When the intelligence community issued its public report” about Russia’s efforts to influence the election, “the first thing the president said was, ‘See? This report shows that there was no impact on the election.’ Of course, that was not at all what the report said.”

Focused on national security from his early days in Congress, Schiff has long advocated that the U.S. recognize as a genocide the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks more than 100 years ago, a stand that has endeared him to the Armenian community in his district.

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked him in 2008 to serve on the Intelligence Committee as it investigated the destruction of CIA tapes of often-brutal interrogations during the George W. Bush administration. After former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosed widespread collection of data on American telephone calls, Schiff took on greater prominence as an advocate of revising the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Among other things, he advocated for more transparency for the secret court that rules on the government’s national security wiretapping requests.

In 2014, Pelosi named Schiff to the House Select Committee on Benghazi, giving him a front-line role in the most partisan of congressional exercises. Americans turned on the nightly news to see Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and ranking Democrat Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and other members yelling at one another and slinging personal attacks.

Cummings said the acrimony displayed in the Benghazi committee tainted how Americans saw its results.

“In order to have credibility, I think you had to lay your party hat at the door,” Cummings said.

Schiff will avoid that trap, Cummings predicted. “He knows what to do,” he said.

Schiff had an initial victory as Nunes agreed to early public hearings with major witnesses, something the Senate Intelligence Committee has been more reluctant to do.

His attention-grabbing opening argument, coupled with the headline-making confirmation from FBI Director James B. Comey that the bureau is indeed investigating potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, may have garnered more public attention than the GOP expected.

The next day Nunes took his now famous early evening trip to the White House to examine intelligence reports that he said indicated possibly improper surveillance of Trump transition officials.

As the evidence mounted that Nunes had gotten his information from White House staff members — and as questions multiplied about whether the documents showed what Nunes had suggested — Schiff called for him to step aside from the investigation. Nunes and House Republican leaders have largely brushed off that demand, but the House investigation has essentially stalled.

Schiff, however, has stopped short of his final option, pulling Democratic support for the investigation, which might end the inquiry — and the platform it provides both for the party’s case against Trump and for his own political future.

Schiff, who spends much of his time in Washington in the Intelligence Committee's secure, windowless rooms three floors below the Capitol visitors center, said he’s too busy to think about next political steps.

“I frankly am just trying to tread water with everything that is going on right now, and it’s hard for me to think about anything beyond the immediate responsibility,” he said. “I’m at the moment trying to drink from the fire hose coming out the administration, and it’s hard to focus on much else.”

It’s hard for voters to focus on much else either.

“The national spotlight is really fixated almost obsessively on Trump and all things Trump,” said California political strategist Sean Clegg, who worked on Harris’ Senate campaign. “It’s smart politics and it’s smart PR to be pushing off of Trump. It’s where all the voltage is right now.”

Or as Schickler said: “In a state like California, being the Democrat who held Trump’s feet to fire is a pretty good place to be.”

sarah.wire@latimes.com

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

ALSO:

How Trump supporters survive in blue California: 'You kind of keep your head down'

Under fire over Russia investigation, White House officials choose to change the subject

Intelligence panel leaders try to avoid partisan rifts that sank other congressional inquiries

Updates on California politics

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°