WASHINGTON – For Rep. Adam Schiff, the biggest political scandal currently playing out in Washington has been a roller-coaster ride.
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“I’m surprised every day by the things I’m learning about this,” he told Haaretz last week, before going to the White House on Friday morning to examine the batch of secret documents at the heart of the latest upheaval. “There have been so many twists and turns. I think it’s been very tragic.”
These documents have been discussed endlessly in recent days despite the fact that almost no one knows what they contain. They also served as the basis for the claims made by Californian Republican Rep. Devin Nunes that perhaps there was some justification for U.S. President Donald Trump’s accusations that Barack Obama's administration collected intelligence on him during the 2016 election.
Schiff, also from California, is the ranking Democratic member of the House of Representatives’ intelligence committee, in which Nunes serves as chairman. In recent weeks, they both emerged on the national scene as their committee deals with an investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia during the 2016 election, and also tries to make sense – to the extent possible – of Trump’s wiretapping complaints against Obama.
The tragedy, says Schiff, is one of a national scale, but it also touches on a more personal level, the intelligence committee itself, which he joined in 2008.
Nunes, the committee chairman, has come under intense criticism for his treatment of the secret documents allegedly proving there was wrongdoing by the intelligence community and the Obama administration against senior figures in the Trump campaign.
Nunes viewed the documents on the White House grounds – reportedly by invitation of White House staffers – but then went out to the cameras and publicly declared that he was provided the information by a secret intelligence source, and presented it to the White House himself. He then refused to tell the members of his own committee who was the source, or what exactly was in the documents that he had seen in private.
When he returned to his home district in California this weekend, hundreds of people reportedly gathered there in protest, accusing him of assisting the Trump administration's cover-up of the Russia scandal.
This entire episode, Schiff told Haaretz, has caused damage to the committee’s credibility and public reputation.
“It’s not a pleasure for me to say this, but the chairman’s conduct has cast a doubt over the committee’s ability to conduct a credible investigation.”
Nunes has been accused by Democrats and by critical conservative pundits and commentators of politicizing the Trump-Russia investigation and trying to divert attention into unfounded accusations against the Obama administration and the intelligence community. The heads of both the FBI and the NSA refuted Trump’s claims about Obama ordering a wiretap against him.
Perhaps in the documents that Nunes viewed last week, and that Schiff viewed on Friday, there is indeed dramatic information that would contradict what the heads of those intelligence agencies said. But Schiff, before he viewed the documents, was skeptical. “You look at the president’s efforts to promote his accusations of President Obama, that caused the committee to take on a new investigation of whether this happened or not – on top of the investigation already being conducted about the president, Russia and the election. That presents quite an incredible challenge.”
Still, Schiff says, he and other members of the committee were “determined to find a way to conduct the investigation credibly and independently.”
The Trump-Russia investigation, he says, is "like nothing I've seen before. Nothing compares to it. It’s completely unprecedented that we’re even discussing such a possibility,” he adds, referring to the notion that Trump's aides coordinated with Russian officials and hackers during the election.
While his political profile has risen since the affair began – Schiff is now regularly appearing on national television and his tweets garner more and more attention – he has also become a target for criticism from Trump’s supporters and the right wing.
Roger Stone, one of Trump’s closest advisers during the campaign, who has admitted to being in touch with WikiLeaks during the election, has accused the Democrat from Los Angeles of being “full of Schiff.” And on Friday, after he published his statement on visiting the White House, conservative scholar and former Bush administration official Mike Doran wrote on Twitter that Schiff criticized the White House for sharing those documents only with Nunes and not with the entire intelligence committee while ignoring their contents.
“Rep. Schiff is complaining about how Nunes acquired the docs in order to deflect attention from what they reveal. That ploy will fail,” he tweeted.
Schiff says he is not interested in that criticism, and is laser-focused on getting all the necessary information about the role played by Russia in the last election. He warns those interested in the investigation to take a deep breath, though: “We all feel a sense of urgency about it, but it’s a very complex investigation. It takes time and effort to gather all the documents, bring in all the necessary witnesses and get coherent answers from the president.
"This is also an investigation that has a global aspect. All of that leads to one clear conclusion – it’s not something we are going to do overnight. This is taking to take quite some time."
One thing is already clear, however, Schiff says.
“You can see that a lot of what the Russians did in the United States, they’ve been doing for years in Europe. Weaponizing stolen information, using cyber capabilities to influence democracy in other countries – these are thing they’ve never done before in the United States, but definitely have in other countries. If we don’t protect ourselves, they’ll do it again – to us and to our allies around the world. That’s why this investigation is too important to allow it to become politicized.”
Asked about a possible connection between Trump’s Russia ties and his administration's decision to adopt a new policy in Syria that would benefit Russia’s interests by accepting President Bashar Assad's survival, Schiff replied: “I’m not sure I can see it go that far. But it’s true that we should all be deeply concerned about the Russia-Iran-Assad relationship and should look out for any changes on that policy front.”
Two days later, the White House announced its intention to “accept the reality” of Assad’s political survival in Syria.