As a former federal prosecutor and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank is one of Congress’ chief inquisitors into Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 presidential election and President Trump’s campaign.
Schiff has met Trump twice. The first time was about 10 years ago, when the congressman and other House members visited Trump in New York when Trump was known mainly as a wealthy businessman and reality TV star.
The second time was in late March, months after Trump became president, and it was likely a little more confrontational. Schiff was invited to the White House to view classified documents that Trump said would help prove his claim that President Obama had ordered wiretaps at Trump Tower.
Schiff described that visit in detail during a talk with reporters just after he delivered the keynote speech at the California Democratic Party’s convention in Sacramento on May 20. And while a lot has happened since late March, Schiff’s story of his visit offers a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the Trump administration has dealt with the scrutiny that has been unrelenting since he took office.
The documents Schiff went to see were the same ones the White House showed the committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, two weeks earlier, unleashing a political storm that prompted Nunes him to step aside from the Russia probe.
Schiff said he ran into trouble just after he arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on March 31. Lawyers at the National Security Council tried to bar Schiff’s staff director, Michael Bahar.
Schiff said Bahar accompanies him to all the meetings of the so-called Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders who are privy to the country’s most sensitive intelligence. He has top-level security clearance, the congressman said.
“But they wouldn’t let him on the White House grounds and we had to fight that, and then they let him on the White House grounds and they wouldn’t let him in the room with me,” Schiff said. “We have a policy, the soundness of which was demonstrated by the whole problem our chairman had, of not reviewing classified information outside the presence of staff.”
While Schiff was arguing with National Security Council lawyers, one of the president’s aides said that Trump wanted to talk with him. In the Oval Office, Trump and White House Chief of Staff
“The president got up from behind his desk and shook hands and said hello. He was very personable and said I did a good job,” Schiff said. “He said, ‘Are you getting everything you need?’ and I said, ‘Well, no, actually I’m not.’”
The congressman told the president about his staff director being barred. The president said he had no problem with the congressman’s staff member reviewing the documents, Schiff recalled. In fact, Trump didn’t have any problem with the entire committee seeing the records, Schiff said.
“I could hear groaning behind me. Reince Priebus and a few other White House aides were behind me,” Schiff said. “The president picked up on this at first and he said, ‘Well I don’t have a problem with that. If they’re OK with it, I’m OK with it.’”
A White House source familiar with the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details on the record, said the material was available only to the chairman and ranking members because of the sensitivity of the documents, and the White House did not know Schiff’s staff director would be accompanying the congressman. The president asked the White House counsel to review the matter, and ultimately allowed all of the intelligence committee staff directors to view the material.
Schiff said he didn’t want to discuss the inquiry about Russia with the president so they chatted for about five or 10 minutes about infrastructure and prescription drug prices. Then Schiff headed back to the National Security Council, where he said attorneys still insisted his staff director could not review the documents.
“I said, ‘Well, you really want to turn me away? You’re the ones who invited me. You’re the ones who advertised that I was coming here,’” Schiff said. “He characterized it as an objection from the intelligence agencies, which I knew was not the case. I said, ‘Call the agencies.’”
A short time later, Schiff and his staff director were invited in to review the records. Schiff has declined to describe the contents of those documents.
“So that was my one meeting with the president, as the president,” Schiff said.