As President Trump tries furiously to fend off impeachment, he has hurled caustic taunts and crude insults at one figure above all — Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the Burbank Democrat who is spearheading the House inquiry.
Schiff is “shifty,” he committed “treason,” he is “liddle,” a “lowlife,” not fit to carry the secretary of State’s “blank strap,” the president has said. “He’s a stone-cold liar,” the president added Thursday.
After Democrats won control of the House last November, Schiff became chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — and a piercing thorn in Trump’s side. Since then, depending on one’s point of view, he has helped lead Democratic efforts to prosecute — or persecute — the president who shatters norms on a daily basis.
Schiff says he isn’t deterred by what he called the president’s “steady stream of invective” aimed at him. Trump’s jabs and gibes seek to divert attention and avoid accountability for his own misconduct, he said.
“He would much rather vilify an opponent than have to explain his actions,” Schiff said in an interview. “He doesn’t want to talk about his behavior; he wants to attack others.”
Although he usually speaks in measured tones, at times Schiff has hurled zingers back at the White House, annoying a president who is famously thin-skinned.
Adding insult to injury, Schiff appears regularly on cable TV, which Trump watches obsessively at times, delivering sober take-downs of the president and comparing him to a Mafia don.
“Adam Schiff knows how to push Trump’s buttons,” said Eric Bolling, who hosts a show for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative news network, and remains close with Trump and his senior lieutenants.
Trump has largely ignored House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who announced the impeachment inquiry last week. She has let Schiff take the spotlight — and the heat.
“I think he’s a bit scared of her. She’s so vicious and crafty,” one Trump campaign advisor said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the president’s views.
By contrast, the advisor said, Schiff is “the smart dork you hated in high school.”
The growing face-off between the two — a former reality television star versus a former federal prosecutor — is likely to punctuate the impeachment process that Democrats are racing to complete this year.
At stake for Trump, of course, is impeachment, his reelection and his legacy. For Schiff, it’s all of that — and arguably whether he someday becomes House speaker or perhaps moves to the Senate.
Schiff helped bring to light an anonymous complaint by a whistleblower that is at the heart of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. It accused Trump of abusing his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election by asking Ukraine to dig up dirt on his political opponents.
The provenance of the complaint sparked its own skirmish this week after the House Intelligence Committee confirmed a report that the whistleblower had originally approached a committee staffer for guidance, and was advised to file a formal complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community.
Schiff had not previously disclosed that. His office said dozens of wannabe whisteblowers approach the intelligence committee each year, and that Schiff followed standard practice in this case and was not advised of the person’s identity.
Still, Trump and his allies swiftly accused Schiff of improperly conspiring with the whistleblower or even helping write the complaint itself. The whistleblower’s attorneys have said Schiff played no role in drafting the complaint.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Trump lawyer who led efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, was particularly gleeful and suggested he could sue Schiff and other Democrats.
“It appears as if Schiff helped orchestrate this complaint,” Giuliani said in an interview. “I always suspected he did.”
During a House hearing last week, Schiff infuriated the president when he paraphrased Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, a conversation crucial to the impeachment furor, calling it a “classic Mafia-like shakedown.”
“Arrest for treason?” the president fired back on Twitter. On Thursday, he offered another solution.
“Schiff is a lowlife who should resign (at least!),” he tweeted.
While the president has made it personal, Schiff says that he will not.
“I’m going to do what I always try to do, which is tune out the noise and try to focus on the job,” he said. “The more the president feels cornered the more he’s going to lash out.”
Schiff was a favorite target of Trump allies during the investigation into whether Trump’s 2016 campaign had illegally cooperated with Russian efforts to sway the election against Hillary Clinton.
Ultimately special counsel Robert S. Mueller III said that Trump’s team welcomed Moscow’s help but that he could not establish a criminal conspiracy.
Trump has mounted the same defense, slamming what he calls a “witch hunt” conducted by Democrats bitter about losing in 2016. Some Republicans are following the same script.
Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee and a frequent Schiff antagonist, tweeted that “it’s hard to view impeachment as anything aside from an orchestrated farce.”
The conservative House Freedom Caucus has filed a resolution to censure Schiff. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield has signed on as a co-sponsor, but the measure is unlikely to move in the Democratic-controlled House.
While Trump has tried to paint Schiff as an overly aggressive inquisitor, the president has spared his wrath toward other Democrats involved in the impeachment battle, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who heads the House Judiciary Committee that ultimately may draft and advance articles of impeachment.
Most noticeably, Trump still grants Pelosi some deference, occasionally attacking her but refraining from making it viciously personal.
“My personal belief is that he’s never had a female peer and that he finds her very intimidating,” said a senior Democratic aide, “and he knows that if he ever wants anything done legislatively in terms of an accomplishment to run on, he has to have her cooperation.
“Even when he’s come up with a name like ‘Nervous Nancy,’ it doesn’t stick,” the aide added.
Trump also hasn’t viewed Pelosi as out to get him, as he portrays other Democrats. It’s something Trump has said publicly, suggesting she didn’t really want to impeach him and she has been “taken over by the radical left.”
“He actually likes Nancy Pelosi as a person,” Bolling said. “I think he respects her and I think he sees that she’s really doing this because her base is pushing her.”
Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.