Column: A warning from Adam Schiff: Trump’s assault on democracy is far from over
I had to level with Rep. Adam B. Schiff about “Midnight in Washington,” his new book about the Trump administration’s scandals and the dangers posed by the transformation of a once-principled GOP into the cult of the former president.
There were moments I wanted to slam the book shut and hurl it through the window.
It wasn’t easy reliving the way President Trump so brazenly welcomed Russian assistance in his 2016 presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton, how he tried to blackmail Ukraine to cough up dirt on his 2020 rival, Joe Biden, and the absolute impunity with which he crashes through anything resembling a legal, moral or ethical guardrail. “I felt the same mixture of emotions when I was writing it,” said Schiff when we met Tuesday for lunch in Burbank, the Democrat’s home district.
Even now, amidst a deluge of new information about how Trump tried to steal the 2020 election from Biden, it’s depressing to imagine Republicans goose-stepping behind him when he almost certainly announces he will seek the presidency again in 2024.
“I’m sure he’s going to run because it would be intolerable to him to see anyone else get the attention,” said Schiff. “He feels like a loser and wants to erase the stain of being beaten.”
To echo the famous veiled threat Trump made to the president of Ukraine, Schiff, has done the American people “a favor, though,” with his first book, set to be published Tuesday. History and truth demand that we not allow Republicans to whitewash the Trump presidency. Having Schiff’s well-written record will prove indispensable as they try to, say, minimize the Jan. 6 riot as a “normal tourist visit.”
In granular detail, Schiff, 61, narrates the investigations he led, first as ranking member, then as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and later, of course, as chief prosecutor in Trump’s first Senate impeachment trial.
“What I really wanted to convey in the book is that while people have the impression that democracies come to an end with blunt force, in fact it’s the actions of individual people,” Schiff said.
In sickening detail, Schiff chronicles the curdling morals of his Republican colleagues and Trump administration officials, who willingly trade their integrity to save their political hides.
There was the moment in March 2019 when all nine Republicans on the Intelligence Committee ambushed Schiff with a scathing letter demanding he step down as chairman for insisting that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in 2016. The Mueller report found no evidence of a “criminal conspiracy,” which is hardly the same as no collusion.
Far from hurting Schiff, the Republican ambush gave him the opening for a stunning speech as he shut them down:
“You might think it’s OK,” said Schiff as he ticked off more than a dozen documented instances where Trump and his minions had inappropriate contacts with Russians — including Trump seeking the Kremlin’s help to consummate a real estate deal in Moscow that would have made him hundreds of millions of dollars, and Trump family members and campaign officials meeting with Russians who promised to provide dirt on Clinton.
“But I don’t think it’s OK,” Schiff said. “I think it’s immoral. I think it’s unethical. I think it’s unpatriotic. And, yes, I think it’s corrupt, and evidence of collusion.”
Schiff said he is often asked whether his Republican colleagues believe what they say in public about the events of the last few years. “The answer is no,” he said. “People I serve with know the ‘Big Lie’ is a big lie.” That includes Senate and House Minority Leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, both of whom condemned Trump for instigating the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, before reversing course.
“I think it’s really essential to tell the whole story, to continue to fight the gaslighting of America, because it’s all part of the same ‘Big Lie,’” Schiff said. “Trump is like a daily drip of poison into the body politic.”
“Midnight in Washington” is not all bleak, particularly descriptions of the courage displayed by folks like former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ruthlessly disparaged by Trump and Rudolph W. Giuliani; diplomat William Taylor, who threatened to resign if Trump withheld security aide to Ukraine; and National Security Council officials Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, both of whom have published memoirs.
Thankfully, Schiff also has a sense of humor that occasionally lightens the moment.
A Democratic colleague, he writes, once offered him 20 bucks to introduce then-Republican U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a dead ringer for Harry Potter villain Draco Malfoy, as the “Gentleman from Slytherin.” He didn’t, he writes, “but I was sorely tempted.”
Schiff is not shy about admitting his missteps — telling MSNBC , for example, that his committee had not spoken with the Ukraine whistleblower when it turned out the person had talked to an Intelligence Committee aide. Schiff said he misunderstood the question; he thought he’d been asked if the whistleblower had testified in private. “I was sloppy in my answer,” he told me.
And of course, there was Schiff’s famous mob-boss parody of the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Since there was no official transcript of the call, only a memo based on the recollections of those who were listening in, Schiff took the liberty of putting Jimmy Cagney-esque words into Trump’s mouth: “I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent,” riffed Schiff. “Understand? Lots of it.”
For that, Trump accused Schiff of “treason” and said he should be charged with “lying to Congress.”
It was, of course, a sideshow aimed at distracting attention from the real issue: Trump’s perfidy and debasement of the American presidency.
One of the achievements of Schiff’s book is the way it weaves together the many disparate threads of a complicated tale that unfolded over several years as the House balance of power shifted from Republicans to Democrats midway through Trump’s term.
What, exactly, was Republican Rep. Devin Nunes doing when he made his infamous “midnight run” to the White House to give Trump documents purporting to show that the Obama administration had spied on Trump’s campaign? This was in March 2017, during what was supposed to be the House Intelligence Committee’s “independent” Russia investigation.
The documents, it turned out, were given to Nunes by two of Trump’s most shameless partisans — not by whistleblowers, as Nunes had led people to believe. Although he was later cleared in an ethics investigation of divulging classified information, Nunes was forced out as chairman of the committee.
“Not even his Republican colleagues wanted to defend him,” writes Schiff, who theorizes that Nunes became slightly unhinged after this humiliation.
Indeed, later, during the impeachment hearings, Nunes sometimes seemed like he was living on Planet Crazy, demanding that Democrats acknowledge that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered with the 2016 election. (That, as Schiff has pointed out, is a Russian talking point.)
“I would listen to some of the Republican opening statements,” said Schiff, “but unless you were not just watching Fox, but into the weeds of a total Alice-in-Wonderland conspiracy upon conspiracy, you could not make heads or tails of it. You needed a certain cognitive dissonance just to accept it.”
Republicans, for instance, insisted there was a “deep state” conspiracy against Trump, even as former FBI Director James B. Comey was, as Schiff said, “more than willing to talk about Hillary Clinton’s emails 10 days before the election, but kept an investigation of the Trump campaign completely secret.”
As we left the restaurant, Schiff told me he did not receive a publisher’s advance for his book; it’s against House ethics rules. U.S. senators can get them, though, noted Patrick Boland, Schiff’s chief of staff.
“Well, that is an outrage,” Schiff said with a laugh.
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