The Jewish American Lawmaker Who Has Become Trump’s Greatest Enemy — and May Yet Bring Him Down

Charged with leading the impeachment inquiry into the president, Rep. Adam Schiff finds himself at the center of the biggest scandal of Trump's presidency. Is he the right man to lead the high stakes process? A profile

Schiff speaks to reporters after meeting with national intelligence inspector general about a whistleblower complaint, September 19, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

WASHINGTON — Of the many enemies Donald Trump has faced since entering politics in 2015, few have been able to generate as much anger and rage in the president as Congressman Adam Schiff.

In recent days, Trump has devoted more time and energy to attacks on the California Democrat than to any other subject. He lashed out at Schiff in multiple media appearances, including at a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö on Wednesday. He also devoted a dozen tweets to personal attacks on Schiff within a span of 72 hours, at one point accusing him of treason and calling him a “lowlife” who “should be forced to resign.”

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Schiff, 59, has become Trump’s archnemesis in light of his growing role in the impeachment inquiry against the president. Late last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped him to lead the congressional investigation into Trump’s alleged attempts to persuade foreign leaders, most notably Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to assist his reelection campaign by opening investigations into his political rival and former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden.

Schiff also chairs the House Intelligence Committee and is one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent speakers on national security issues. That role had already earned him Trump’s wrath before, but it’s the events of the past two weeks that have truly unleashed Trump’s “fire and fury” on the congressman.

Pelosi chose Schiff to become the public face of the impeachment inquiry in coordination with several moderate Democratic lawmakers, who were hesitant to express support for any kind of impeachment move until late last month.

When it became clear that Pelosi was going to announce the beginning of an inquiry, moderate Democrats lobbied Pelosi to give Schiff the leading role. She didn’t take a lot of convincing: Pelosi has long considered Schiff one of the most effective members currently serving in the House of Representatives.

“Adam is the natural choice to lead this process,” says former Congressman Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who served alongside Schiff on Capitol Hill for 16 years. Over the years, the two became close friends.

Speaking with Haaretz this week, Israel says he wasn’t surprised by Pelosi’s decision to place the sensitive impeachment inquiry in Schiff’s hands. “There are two main reasons why she trusts him with this responsibility,” explains Israel. “First of all, Adam is a former federal prosecutor. He has the criminal justice skills that are necessary for this kind of complex investigation.” (Schiff began his public career in the 1980s as a prosecutor in California. One of the first cases he worked on led to the conviction of FBI agent Richard Miller for spying for the Soviet Union.)

US President Donald Trump holds up a NYTimes report on House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff as he and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto(not shown) hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 2, 2019.
AFP

“The second reason is that he’s one of the smartest and most knowledgeable members of Congress when it comes to intelligence issues,” adds Israel. “He has a deep understanding of the complexities of the intelligence community. That combination is exactly what this process will require.”

Defining event

Schiff was first elected to Congress in November 2000, winning his district in the Los Angeles area from Republican Congressman James Rogan. One of the main issues of that year’s campaign was how the Republican Party, including Schiff’s opponent, handled the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton. Rogan was a strong supporter of impeaching Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal and played a key role in that impeachment process. Almost two decades later, Schiff now finds himself at the heart of a drama that could become even larger: the potential impeachment of Trump.

“When both of us were first elected to Congress, many people actually confused us for one another,” recalls Israel. “I was a Jewish Democrat from New York; Adam was a Jewish Democrat from California. Both of us represented politically moderate districts which were previously held by Republicans. People would talk to me thinking they were actually talking to him.”

The two also served on the House Committee on Appropriations, which is where their friendship was born. Israel says the 9/11 terror attacks were a defining event in Schiff’s congressional career: The tragedy pushed both men to become more active and involved in conversations on national security. Schiff was first selected to serve on the House Intelligence Committee in 2008.

Pelosi and Schiff have known each other for decades, ever since he got involved in Democratic politics in their joint home state of California. In an interview with The New Yorker last year, Pelosi praised Schiff’s handling of intelligence issues, specifically during the first two years of the Trump administration.

During this time, Democrats were the minority in the House and were fighting tooth-and-nail with the White House over the Mueller investigation into Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election. “The voice that Adam gives to these issues is one that is calming, logical, linear, measured but forceful,” Pelosi said, adding that she had “complete confidence” in him.

That trust was on display even before the Trump era, when Pelosi named Schiff as one of five Democrats to represent the party on a special committee set up by the Republicans to investigate the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. With prominent Republicans in Congress using the Benghazi attack and the failures around it to undermine former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Democrats placed their hopes on Schiff and the other four Democrats on the panel (including Tammy Duckworth, who later became a senator) to push back.

Schiff’s political standing reached its peak after Trump was elected in November 2016. As the ranking member on the intelligence committee, he became one of the most prominent Democratic voices on the issues of Russia, electoral interference and Trump’s battle with the U.S. intelligence community. Schiff’s numerous television appearances turned him into a political celebrity, introducing him for the first time to many voters outside of his own district.

'The thinking man’s congressman'- Schiff was charged with leading the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

“I got a glimpse of that when he visited me one time in my district in Long Island,” recounts Israel. “We both love bookstores, so we went to a nice bookstore in some small town. Outside the store, a person started walking directly toward me and I told my wife, ‘He probably recognized me and wants to talk about politics.’ But instead the guy came up to me, pointed at Adam and asked me, ‘Isn’t that Adam Schiff?’”

‘He didn’t deliver on Russia’

Schiff’s constant focus on the triangle of Trump, Russia and the U.S. intelligence community turned him into a hero of the self-described “resistance” against Trump. For the president, that same focus turned Schiff into an enemy, leading to childish attacks on his Twitter account — mostly by way of ridiculing Schiff’s last name.

Schiff’s strategy has mostly been to ignore those attacks. “He’s one of the most calm and level-headed people I know,” says Israel. “He won’t get distracted by that stuff.”

But his work on both Russia and Ukraine has also led to more serious criticism, different in tone and content from Trump’s outbursts. The Washington Post’s chief fact checker, Glenn Kessler, gave Schiff “Four Pinocchios” (for telling “whoppers”) this week for claims he made about his interactions with the government whistle-blower who exposed the Ukraine scandal.

Very few journalists have done a better job of tracking Trump’s lies over recent years than Kessler. Yet his article on Schiff this week was, unlike most of his writing, shared by many of the president’s supporters, who are now trying to discredit Schiff’s work on Ukraine. Another frequent Trump critic who strongly criticized Schiff this week was Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, who described Schiff on Wednesday as “a reckless partisan.” In the same tweet that included this statement, though, Lake also wrote that despite his views on the congressman, “For the president of the United States to say Schiff committed treason is despicable. It’s insanity.”

Lake tells Haaretz he believes it was a mistake to choose Schiff to lead the inquiry. “He’s the wrong person to make the case, because he doesn’t have a lot of credibility outside of the ‘Resistance’ circles. He didn’t deliver on Russian collusion — after building up for months a narrative of a corrupt bargain between Trump and Russia, which simply never materialized. If the purpose is to persuade Republicans to convict and remove Trump, I don’t think Schiff should be leading it.”

According to Lake, “Schiff is vulnerable simply based on how he handled the Russia story. He was one of the people who promoted this story more than anyone else, and then the Mueller Report came out and there was no proof of any conspiracy with the Russians. This created an opportunity for people like Schiff to come and say, ‘I’m glad there was no conspiracy, that’s good news for our country.’ But instead he said ‘We have unanswered questions,’ and just kept going. This history won’t help get Republican votes for removing Trump in the Senate.”

Getting GOP votes in the Senate will be key, because while Democrats hold a majority in the House, which should be enough for impeaching Trump, the Republicans have a slight majority in the Senate, where a super-majority of 67 votes is needed in order to convict and remove a president.

Israel offers a different view on Schiff’s ability to convince Republicans, saying that one of Schiff’s strengths over the years has been his “ability to work across the aisle, especially on intelligence issues.” He cites as an example Schiff’s relationship with the late Republican Sen. John McCain, with whom Schiff cooperated over the years on national security and intelligence issues.

Schiff with Nancy Pelosi as House Democrats move ahead in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, October 2, 2019.
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

After McCain’s death in August 2018, Schiff told CNN about a conversation they had when Democrats were still the minority in the House and Schiff was the ranking member on its Intelligence Committee. Schiff told the senator he was disappointed by House Republicans, because “there didn’t seem to be a single Republican … who wanted to be the John McCain of the House” — meaning a strong and frequent critic of the Trump presidency. According to Schiff, McCain responded: “Well, if there isn’t, they will be calling you chairman” — predicting the Democratic victory in last November’s midterms.

Russia, China — and internet ‘deepfakes’

According to two congressional staffers who work for moderate Democratic lawmakers, one of the main reasons they asked Pelosi to let Schiff lead the inquiry were his skills at communicating messages related to intelligence and legal matters. One of the staffers explains: “He’s calm and reserved in hearings and on television, but without being boring. The danger when you’re running this kind of process is to either look too hotheaded and insane, or, alternatively, to bore people to death. Schiff can avoid both of these problems.”

One of the main questions Democrats will face as the impeachment process moves forward will be: why now? How is the Ukraine scandal fundamentally different than many other scandals surrounding Trump that dominated the headlines for days — but eventually dropped out of the news cycle without causing any real harm to the president?

Schiff told Haaretz this week what his own reply to those questions will be. He claimed that Trump admitted, in his own words, of trying to get a foreign country to intervene in the next presidential election.

“When the Constitution was written, among the Founders’ gravest concerns was that foreign powers could interfere in our democracy,” he said. “The call record of the conversation with the Ukrainian president, and President Trump’s own admissions, make clear [that] Trump has invited that interference, using the power of his office to solicit dirt on a political opponent.”

Schiff added that Trump’s actions “are a profound betrayal of his oath of office and a very real threat to our national security.” He cautioned, however, that “undertaking an impeachment inquiry is a somber and weighty decision, and in coordination with my fellow committee chairs, we are proceeding both deliberately and with a real sense of urgency.”

In reply to a subsequent question on whether there were already signs of foreign intervention in the 2020 election, Schiff expressed real concerns. “I remain deeply concerned about the potential for foreign interference in the 2020 elections, whether by Russia or other powers, and more so after the president’s public comments asking China to interfere,” he told Haaretz.

“In 2016, one of my paramount concerns was that Russia would intersperse false, explosive material among the real documents and emails they hacked and dumped. That concern is magnified in 2020 by the rapid technological advance of ‘deepfakes,’ pictures and videos that are generated using sophisticated Artificial Intelligence to depict people doing or saying things they never said,” Schiff added.

Schiff listens as Nancy Pelosi gives her weekly press conference, October 2, 2019.
AFP

He also warned that “it’s easy to imagine how a well-timed, viral deepfake could have a potentially decisive effect in an election, which is why I have been working to educate Congress and the American people about this technology, and urging social media companies to take actions to prevent their malicious use.”

‘Thinking man’s congressman’

Alon Pinkas, who was the Israeli consul general in New York from 2000 to 2004, has known Schiff for many years. He calls him “the thinking man’s congressman,” adding: “I have known many members of Congress over the years. He is right up there at the top.”

Regarding Trump’s attacks on Schiff, Pinkas believes that “if the intensity and blatancy continues at this level, or exceeds it, it will assist Rep. Schiff.”

As a congressman, Schiff has enjoyed a strong relationship with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (the most influential pro-Israel lobby group in Washington). In June, AIPAC shared an interview that Schiff gave on CBS in which he accused Iran of being responsible for provocative steps in the Persian Gulf. And earlier this year, after rockets launched from the Gaza Strip hit a family’s home north of Tel Aviv, Schiff declared: “Hamas’ acts of terror against Israel cannot go unanswered, and we stand with our Israeli allies in condemning these attacks.”

In 2015, Schiff voted in favor of President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Former colleague Steve Israel, who voted against the deal, tells Haaretz they had lengthy and complicated conversations on the subject.

“We took different positions eventually, but I admired his process of thinking and deliberating over this,” says Israel. “He attended classified briefings, read all the documents, met with experts from both sides of the discussion. We had very long conversations about this in my office. He came to a different conclusion than mine, but he did so based on an extraordinary amount of input.”

The challenge facing Schiff in the coming months will be the biggest he has ever faced in his political career. With many Democrats already calling to impeach Trump — long before an inquiry has even gotten under way — and many Republicans trying to discredit the entire process by personally going after Schiff, he will have to navigate a path through difficult political circumstances.

“He knows he’s got a target on his back right now,” says Israel. “That’s what happens when you take on a national leadership role. But he’s tough. He can take it.”