President Trump, emboldened after the special counsel said he did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy to sway the 2016 election, has an early target as he seeks recompense from his critics: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who maintains that he’s seen evidence that Trump colluded with Russia.
Over the last two years, Schiff, who has led the House Intelligence Committee since January, has emerged as a public foil to Trump and his supporters. He has delivered scathing takedowns of Trump for calling Robert Mueller’s probe a “witch hunt,” and he offered similar criticism of Trump’s congressional allies now leading a charge to depose Schiff as chairman on the grounds that his bias against the president makes him unfit to lead.
Yet even as House Democrats make a clear pivot away from the collusion question, they continue to rally around Schiff — who refuses to let the matter go until lawmakers can assess the investigative materials that informed Mueller’s findings.
“Undoubtedly there is collusion,” Schiff said in an interview this week, after Atty. Gen. William Barr submitted a four-page letter to Congress summarizing key aspects of Mueller’s report. “We will continue to investigate the counterintelligence issues. That is, is the president or people around him compromised in any way by a hostile foreign power? . . . It doesn’t appear that was any part of Mueller’s report.”
A Justice Department official said Tuesday it would take weeks to make at least part of the Mueller report public. House Democrats on Monday gave Barr an April 2 deadline to provide Congress with a copy.
This week, the Trump campaign singled out Schiff, along with Intelligence Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin), on a list of people it urged media outlets to avoid booking for interviews after Barr announced Mueller’s findings, according to reports. The list includes House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and former CIA Director John Brennan, both of whom, like Schiff, have infuriated the president with their public scrutiny and criticism.
Though Barr’s summary has cast doubt on the premise of the Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe, at least among Republicans, Democrats maintain that Schiff is not wrong in saying that there was evidence of collusion, even if Mueller determined that the matter did not rise to a level that warranted prosecution.
“It doesn’t mean there wasn’t an enormous amount of smoke there,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “This was a fine legal distinction Mr. Mueller had to make.”
Still, Schiff has taken steps to put the panel’s investigation on hold, pending the release of Mueller’s findings. On Monday, he announced that the committee had indefinitely postponed a planned hearing with Felix Sater, a former business associate of the president who was involved in the pursuit to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Schiff said the pause was temporary, adding that the intelligence panel may still uncover “deeply compromising” evidence in its counterintelligence investigation that falls outside the scope of Mueller’s criminal probe. He pledged that his panel, in partnership with the House Financial Services Committee, would continue to explore allegations of money laundering involving Trump’s properties and loans his business sought through Deutsche Bank.
The House Intelligence Committee was a center of partisan fighting over Trump’s alleged Russia ties even before Mueller began his investigation, developing a reputation for discord and sniping during the GOP-led Russia probe that said there was no evidence that Trump colluded with Russia.
Republicans see Schiff’s recalibration as proof that he is wrong to challenge Trump.
“He essentially spent 22 months lying to the country,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress.
Gaetz said that in seeking Schiff’s ouster as committee chairman, Republicans were following the example set by Democrats, who in 2017 sought to remove Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), when he led the committee.
Democrats called for Nunes to step down as chairman after a controversial visit to the White House in which he reviewed classified reports with administration officials and then told reporters that aides to the president might have been caught up in wiretaps. He was put under ethics investigation and was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but Nunes stepped aside from running the Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe.
During that episode, Schiff questioned Nunes’ motivation for the “midnight run,” as he called it, and later accused Nunes of being “misleading” in his efforts to portray federal law enforcement officials as corrupt and biased for seeking to conduct surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser.
Republicans consider those episodes “important context,” Gaetz said, in their own calls for Schiff to step down, which have been voiced by figures as prominent as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr.
Thus far, those demands appear to be going nowhere. Schiff has the support of party leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who counts him among her closest confidants and most trusted advisers.
Politically, the GOP’s focus on Schiff “probably helps him,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC communication professor and close watcher of California politics. “You’re talking about California, the state that is the fulcrum of the anti-Trump resistance,” she said. “This will not hurt Adam Schiff in California, period.”