When you get a busy congressman like Adam Schiff on the line, you don’t want to waste time with small talk. You want to get right to the point.
So I did: “Exactly, how tall are you, Congressman?”
Schiff chuckled, but he didn’t duck.
“I’m 5-10.” Pause. “And a half.”
My sharply honed journalistic instincts led to my next question:
“Are you taller than ‘Little Marco’?”
“I am taller than ‘Little Marco,’” replied Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee who has become one of President Trump’s most vocal — and entertaining — critics.
Although the president has tweeted in the past that Schiff is “one of the biggest liars” in Washington, it turns out the Burbank Democrat was telling the truth. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of Trump’s presidential primary opponents, is 5-foot-9. (I Googled it.)
In his never-ending quest to, well, belittle all who oppose him, Trump, it appears, has run out of fresh insults.
“This was a letdown,” Schiff told me Tuesday, a day after asking the president to allow Democrats to release their rebuttal to a Republican memo aimed at undermining special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. “The last nickname he gave me I had all to myself, and now I have to share this one.”
He was referring to a Trump tweet last July, in which the president called the congressman “Sleazy Adam Schiff.”
At the time, Schiff’s 15-year-old son, Eli, was away at camp, where he had no access to electronics.
As he and his wife picked him up, Schiff said, “Eli, something has happened. The president of the United States called your father ‘Sleazy.’ ”
Eli paused for a moment, Schiff said. And then he looked at his father and asked, “Can I call you ‘Sleazy’?”
To which Schiff responded: “Not unless you want me to call you ‘Sleazy Jr.’”
For those who can’t spend all day watching cable news, House Democrats and Republicans have been fighting over whether a warrant to eavesdrop on a Trump campaign associate known to have ties to Russia was properly issued by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in October 2016.
Republicans, led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of Tulare, say the warrant was based on information from a biased source — the “Steele Dossier,” which was commissioned by a firm with ties to the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. That information, say Republicans, was not properly disclosed to the court by either the FBI or the Justice Department, which sought the surveillance. Democrats say, as Nunes would later acknowledge, the court was indeed aware that the information had partisan roots.
You can read up on the fight until your eyes cross; you will only come to understand that Democrats are battling a ham-fisted attempt by Republicans to undermine Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which presents a political liability for the Trump presidency and the GOP itself.
“In broad terms,” Schiff said, “the investigation by Robert Mueller has gotten closer and closer to the president. There is a rising level of panic in the Congress and the White House. Like I saw as a prosecutor, when the facts are incriminating of your client, you try to put the government on trial.”
Thus, Nunes has pushed a narrative that the FBI and Justice Department cannot be trusted.
I guess if I were the president or one of his congressional allies, I’d be freaked out, too.
On Monday, Nunes told Fox News that one of those who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, George Papadopoulos, had never met with the president “as far as we can tell.” This howler is all the funnier because of a photograph — circulated in 2016 by the Trump campaign and readily available online — that shows Trump in a meeting with foreign policy advisors, including, prominently, Papadopoulos.
Hard to believe that Nunes leads the Intelligence Committee.
Schiff, as it happens, is the perfect foil for a guy like Trump. He’s calm, unflappable and wry, always the grown-up to the president’s spoiled child.
After Trump’s latest anti-Schiff tweet, for instance, the congressman replied:
“Mr. President, I see you’ve had a busy morning of ‘Executive Time.’ Instead of tweeting false smears, the American people would appreciate it if you turned off the TV and helped solve the funding crisis, protected Dreamers or … really anything else.”
Schiff said he briefly considered running to replace U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but once she decided to run for reelection, he threw his support behind her. I guess that’s the “higher office” Trump accuses Schiff of being “desperate” for.
Had Schiff decided to run, his newly heightened profile — thanks to Trump — would serve him well.
Last June, Schiff appeared on the UC Irvine campus with the law school’s then-dean, Erwin Chemerinsky. Chemerinsky was happy to have Schiff, but school was already out for the summer: Would anyone show up?
The event was a smash; the 750-seat auditorium sold out.
“My rabbi even called me to see if I could get him tickets,” Chemerinsky said.
Schiff always sounds amused by the president’s hate tweets, but he considers them a badge of honor.
“I’m in good company,” he told me. “Meryl Streep, the whole cast of ‘Hamilton,’ the New York Times. And I have never gotten so many questions about my height before.”