President Trump’s No. 1 nemesis invited me to visit him in Burbank on Monday. How could I resist?
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff had just returned from the annual Munich Security Conference, where he held bilateral meetings with various European defense ministers who are working with the U.S. on negotiations between Afghanistan and the Taliban. He also met with NATO officials in Brussels.
The meetings, said Schiff, “confirmed what we are hearing and seeing, which is that the Russians are continuing to engage in interfering in the 2020 election. They’ve never really stopped. Our allies are equally aware of the Russian threat to their own elections.”
The theme of the Munich conference was “Westlessness,” a depressing if catchy new word that describes the way the world is shifting away from liberal democracies, in the same way the moral authority of the United States is being eroded.
“There was a real sense that democracy has been on a downward trajectory over the past two to three years of the Trump presidency and the West is leaderless,” Schiff told me. “Trump is leading in a negative direction against the Transatlantic [Trade and Investment] Partnership and NATO, and others are rising in the void, like China. Russia is lashing out as much as ever.”
Schiff had come home to California for a few days to cast his vote in the primary, touch base with constituents and appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the lead prosecutor against President Trump in both the House impeachment inquiry and the Senate trial, Schiff has become Trump’s virtually untouchable archenemy. The unflappable congressman is never far from the president’s mind, and the reverse is true, too.
“I spend half my day inside his head apparently,” Schiff joked with Kimmel. “And I gotta tell you, it’s pretty scary in there. It’s everything I can do to avoid all the marbles rolling around.” (Cue the rimshot.)
In his closing statement at the trial, before the Senate vote, Schiff predicted that if Trump were acquitted of having violated the Constitution, he would be unleashed in potentially terrifying ways. He was right; since the vote, Trump has gone off the deep end, purging his administration of enemies real and imagined and their families.
For instance, when Trump learned that Joseph Maguire, his acting intelligence chief, had allowed an election security expert to tell the House Intelligence Committee last month that Russia had a “preference for Trump,” he blew a fuse. He claimed he’d never heard the information and suggested that Schiff should be investigated for leaking it, which Schiff said he did not.
Even crazier, Trump insisted that the information was wrong, that the intelligence community was “being played,” as the Washington Post put it, and that Democrats had just been handed political ammunition to use against him.
Trump fired Maguire and replaced him with the supremely unqualified Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist and former U.S. spokesman at the United Nations who currently serves as the American ambassador to Germany.
Many elected officials and journalists know Grenell as a once-prolific Twitter antagonist; in fact, I first came to know his name a few years ago when he tweeted sarcastically at me.
“So the Twitter trolls are now running the intelligence agencies,” Schiff said.
On Monday morning, I joined Schiff in a black SUV for the ride from his district office on East Olive Avenue in Burbank to his polling place at the Buena Vista Branch Library a couple of miles away.
Schiff is on the ballot, and seven challengers have taken him on, including Maebe A. Girl, a progressive Democrat and drag queen who serves on the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. His leading Republican challenger is attorney Eric Early, a huge Trump fan who calls Schiff “a national disgrace.”
“I don’t think that’s your best approach in this district,” Schiff said dryly.
In the car, I pressed him on his choice for the Democratic presidential ticket.
Schiff, who has not endorsed a candidate, refused to say. However, like so many Democrats, he said his main criteria was “electability.” Which means what, exactly, I asked.
“To me, what that means is they can both excite the base of our party and they can win over swing voters,” Schiff said. “That’s what Bill Clinton was able to do, and it’s what Barack Obama was able to do. If I were advising anyone in the field, I would say run on two things: Run on meeting the economic needs of those who have been left behind — the Trump-Obama voters — and run on a return to basic decency.”
He will support the eventual nominee “110%,” he said, no matter who that is. He’d support anybody over Trump.
“I say this without any hyperbole — you could pluck someone off the street at random and they would be a better president than Donald Trump,” Schiff said. “Because someone chosen completely at random off the street would be patriotic, they would be decent, and if they didn’t know something, they would have the good sense to ask someone who did.”
My last question for Schiff was something I had to ask. Given that Trump was acquitted by the Republican-majority Senate, did he have any regrets or second thoughts about how he’d handled the whole impeachment?
He did not.
Not even when he paraphrased Trump’s shakedown phone call with the Ukrainian president to make him sound even more like a Mafia don than he already does?
“No,” said Schiff, “if mocking the president got under his skin, that’s just another benefit.”