Column: The cult of Trump faces the calm of Adam Schiff
After a tense two weeks leading the impeachment inquiry against President Trump, Rep. Adam B. Schiff was finally able to sleep in.
On Friday afternoon, he greeted me in his Capitol Hill office. He was in faded jeans, a forest-green shirt and a gray wool barn jacket, in contrast to the suits he’d worn during the hearings where, despite the long days and short nights, he had been a calm, stolid presence.
For the record:
4:16 PM, Nov. 26, 2019An earlier version of this op-ed misidentified Mike Pompeo as secretary of Defense rather than secretary of State.
That’s not to say the hearings were without fireworks; there were some very tense moments in the room, especially when Republicans interrupted witnesses, asked irrelevant questions about discredited conspiracy theories or tried repeatedly to pry loose the identity of the whistleblower whose report had led to this historic inquiry.
Those were the times when Schiff, a former federal prosecutor who is almost always described in profiles as “unflappable,” brought the gavel down hard.
He did not look as if he relished those moments, but someone had to do it. Democrats are in control, to the obvious, and often childish, chagrin of the minority party.
While Republicans like ranking committee member Devin Nunes grimaced or disappeared, Schiff sat up straight in his leather chair for hours, looking directly at witnesses, listening attentively, giving the respect that some of the Republicans had a hard time mustering.
Were you trying to make a point with your demeanor? I asked him.
“I very much wanted to hear what the witnesses had to say,” he said. “I also knew the camera was going to watch everything I did and I wanted my own bearing to reflect the seriousness of what we were hearing and what was happening. I also knew that my Republican colleagues much preferred a circus to a sober proceeding, so I was not going to give them a fight.”
Was it distracting that Nunes was so often absent, or that he couldn’t be bothered to sit up straight to hear the witnesses, slumping instead in his seat?
“It didn’t distract me,” Schiff said. “I don’t think it distracted the witnesses, either, but it does reflect that fundamental lack of seriousness that he brought to his responsibility.”
Though they sat next to each other during the hearing, Schiff and Nunes barely looked at each other. Both men are Californians (as are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Republican counterpart, Kevin McCarthy), but Schiff can’t recall ever having a beer with Nunes. “I think I got him a couple of Raiders beer mugs once, because we’re both Raiders fans,” Schiff said.
Nunes frequently insulted Schiff by implication. “I now yield to Mr. Schiff for ‘Storytime Hour,’” Nunes said at one point last week. But nothing the ranking member has lobbed at Schiff can compare to the president’s insults.
Trump has accused Schiff of treason, and has given him a variety of nicknames, none of which seems to have stuck: “Little Schiff.” “Shifty Schiff.” “Pencil Neck.” Schiff, who has done some stand-up comedy, usually responds by trolling the president on Twitter.
Schiff told CNN last spring that Trump had broken “the cardinal rule of childish nicknames, which is you’ve got to pick one and stick with it.”
Friday morning, Trump had called “Fox & Friends” to offer rambling thoughts about the impeachment inquiry and other things on his mind.
As is his nature, he insulted Schiff several times.
“There’s something wrong with him,” Trump told the gang at “Fox & Friends.” “He’s a sick puppy.”
Schiff laughed. He hadn’t heard it, but he’d seen something about it on Twitter.
“I think the president just debases the office of the presidency,” Schiff said. “I think about the great people who have served in that office.” He pointed to photographs on his wall of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower.
“And then you think, ‘Oh, my God, that same office that these great men once held is being held by someone who calls people these ridiculous, fifth-grade nicknames,’” Schiff said. “I suppose compared to coercing an ally do to his political dirty work, nicknames is a rather minor thing, but in ways large and small he has brought such dishonor to that office.”
Thursday, in his closing statement, Schiff was eloquent and passionate as he summed up the case against Trump. He invoked a hero of Watergate: Howard Baker, the GOP senator who was expected to protect Republican President Nixon during the Senate hearings but instead asked a question that led to Nixon’s downfall: What did the president know and when did he know it?
“Where is Howard Baker?” Schiff asked. “The difference between then and now is not the difference between Nixon and Trump. It’s the difference between that Congress and this one. Where are the people who are willing to go beyond their party to look to their duty?”
In Trump’s Republican Party, they simply don’t exist. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has turned against his dear friend Joe Biden, the former vice president. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both said that God has ordained Trump’s presidency.
On Monday, Schiff announced to his colleagues that the inquiry had turned up “massive amounts of evidence” that the president had abused his office. His committee will deliver a report after Thanksgiving to the House Judiciary Committee, which will be responsible for drafting articles of impeachment.
If the House votes in favor of impeachment, the Senate will set a trial. To convict and remove the president would require a two-thirds vote of the Republican-dominated Senate, which means 20 Republican senators, at least, would have to vote for removal.
If that doesn’t happen — and it probably won’t, given the rabidly partisan nature of the support for Trump — will the impeachment effort have been in vain?
“We have a responsibility to do our constitutional duty,” Schiff said. “We are not absolved of that because one party has decided to devote itself to a cult of the president rather than its constitutional duties.”
What will it take, you have to wonder, to deprogram the Republicans?
A cure for the common opinion
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