The Quiet Anger of Adam Schiff
Two years ago, he was a respected but little-known congressman from Los Angeles. Today, he’s the face of the Democrats’ opposition to Trump.
“I got a picture! I got a picture!” A middle-aged woman named Barb plops down into a chair, out of breath. She’s wearing jeans, Crocs with painted toenails, and a T-shirt that says TRUMPCARE: IT’S TRUMP UNIVERSITY BUT YOU DIE. On an evening in late spring, she has staked out a front-row seat at a fundraiser for the Iowa Democratic Party held at a hotel on the wind-swept outskirts of Cedar Rapids. Barb’s friends crowd around her as she swipes through photos of her and the evening’s headliner, Congressman Adam Schiff.
The event was scheduled to begin 15 minutes ago, but Schiff is pinned in a far corner of the room, mobbed by party activists and local politicians who want to shake his hand or take another selfie. Schiff is here to raise money for Democratic candidates in Iowa in the run-up to the November midterms. He headlined a fundraiser in Des Moines earlier in the afternoon, and he was in St. Louis the day before on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s main vehicle for winning back the House. Wherever Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and his Democratic colleagues need him, he’ll go, and lately, that’s meant just about everywhere.
After an introduction by the state party chairman, Schiff finally takes the stage. Dressed in a crisp blue suit and sensible dress shoes, he cultivates a cheerfully beleaguered demeanor. He speaks without notes and tells jokes the way a dad would if that dad had access to highly classified intelligence. (One involves confusing Trump adviser John Bolton with pop singer Michael Bolton, which elicits scattered laughter.) He doesn’t raise his voice, doesn’t try to fire up the crowd. But then he doesn’t need to. The 175 people in attendance rise to their feet and applaud him without his saying a word.
Before Donald Trump’s election, in 2016, Schiff was a respected if obscure member of Congress. In Washington, he had a reputation as an expert on national security and intelligence. People beyond the Beltway knew him, if they knew him at all, as the congressman with the Hollywood sign in his district or the one who shared a name with a beloved character on Law & Order. His admirers used words like “solid,” “reasonable,” and “mild-mannered.” If there was a knock on him, it was that he was too solid, too reasonable, and too mild-mannered. The kind of guy who at the end of a long day removes his tie but leaves his collar buttoned at the neck.
Then came Trump. For the past 18 months, as the senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Schiff has played a leading part in the investigation into Russia’s interference in our elections and possible collusion with Trump and his aides and associates. At the same time, he has worked to fend off the efforts by his Republican colleagues and Trump’s media allies to derail the investigation. All this has vaulted Schiff into the unlikely role of being the Democrats’ leader not just on the investigation but on all things Trump and Russia. He has become a fixture on cable TV and the Sunday talk shows, distilling and explaining the latest developments in the marquee saga of the Trump presidency.
In accordance with the inside-out logic of the era, Schiff’s weaknesses have become his strengths. For many, he is the voice of reason, a steadying influence, the sober narrator in a time when chaos reigns, basic facts are under assault, and members of both parties resort to hyperbole and outrage to rile up the base. Strangers stop him on the street and at the airport and in the aisles of CVS to thank him. His Twitter following is rapidly approaching the 1-million mark, making him one of the most popular members of Congress on the platform. “There’s such a desire for something you can hang on to in the midst of these gale-force winds, and there’s a solidity to Schiff that is really appealing,” David Axelrod, the former adviser to Barack Obama, told me. “At a time when everything seems to be going crazy, there is a sense of bland is beautiful.”
The day before Schiff landed in Iowa, The New York Times had published a list of 49 questions drawn up by Trump’s legal team that reflected what special counsel Robert Mueller hoped to ask Trump if the president sat for an interview. Before the audience in Cedar Rapids, Schiff riffed on this latest bit of news, and then, in what’s become a trademark move, he urged his audience to step back from the fast-twitch news cycle and to remember the larger implications of the Russia story. “Even among Democrats, there is a tendency to think too narrowly about what this all means,” he said, “that this was just about helping Donald Trump in the last election or just about hurting Hillary Clinton.” But that line of thinking, he continued, misses the bigger picture. “This is part of Russian interference in nations throughout the world to undermine the very idea of democracy, and if we don’t understand that, then the remedy is going to be the wrong one.”
Schiff, who turned 58 in June, finds himself in an enviable, if strange, position: Thanks in no small part to the man he calls “the worst president in modern history,” he has now become a political star. It’s a turn of events that has taken almost everyone by surprise, none more so than Schiff himself. He had expected a Hillary Clinton presidency, he told me in one of our many conversations in the past year, and Clinton’s people had said there might be a job for him in the new administration. Now, sitting in an empty lobby bar after his speech, he was still trying to make sense of recent events and his own place in them: “I would have not predicted this year or last.”
In the late summer of 2016, CIA Director John Brennan held a series of urgent meetings with a senior group of lawmakers known as the Gang of Eight. These legislators — the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate and the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees — receive periodic classified briefings from the executive branch; they’re the first to know of major national-security threats and developments, the keepers of Congress’s intelligence secrets. Schiff had joined the Gang of Eight in 2015, when he became the House intelligence committee’s ranking Democrat.
Brennan came with alarming news: “Russia was engaged in aggressive and wide-ranging efforts to interfere in one of the key pillars of our democracy,” as he later testified. The Russians were trying to elect Donald Trump, he said, and there was a possibility that they would hack individual states and manipulate their voting systems.
Schiff pushed for the Gang of Eight to issue a bipartisan statement and urged the Obama administration to warn the public. The Republicans, though, refused to join in, and the White House, fearful that anything it said would be perceived as partisan, chose to remain silent. Schiff and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a colleague on the Gang of Eight, decided to go it alone. On September 22, 2016, they released a joint statement, the first by any government official on Russia’s cyberattacks. Schiff’s and Feinstein’s staffs vetted each of its 129 words so as not to reveal classified information. “Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election,” they wrote. “We believe that orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government.”
This was the first of many synchronicities for Schiff between the present and past. Born in Massachusetts in 1960, the youngest of two brothers, Schiff eschewed family tradition by picking Stanford over Dartmouth. He went on to attend Harvard Law School. Not long after graduation, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles. There, he was put on the case of Richard Miller, an agent in the FBI’s counterintelligence unit, who had fallen for a Soviet spy, passing her secret documents in exchange for cash, gold, and sex. The government had failed twice to convict Miller. Under fierce pressure, Schiff was brought in to win the third trial, which he did. Miller was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the first time an FBI agent had ever been convicted of espionage. That the bureau didn’t close ranks after such an embarrassing breach, but instead devoted dozens of agents to solve the case, left a strong impression on Schiff. So, too, did the national attention. Politicians and other government officials had called Schiff to offer whatever resources they could. “ ‘Dad, I will never have another case like that in my life,’ ” Schiff’s father, Ed, recounted to a reporter years later. “ ‘I’m going into politics.’ ”
Karl Thurmond, who met Schiff at Harvard Law, was one of his closest friends in Los Angeles and used to get together with Schiff every week. Once, when they were jogging down San Vicente Boulevard, Thurmond says Schiff told him he wanted to run for president one day. “He denies ever having said that,” Thurmond told me. “But I know he did.”
In 1991, Schiff entered a special election for an open state Assembly seat. The decision surprised his colleagues. He was a capable and talented prosecutor, but few people who knew him saw a politician-in-waiting. Brian Hennigan, who worked alongside Schiff in the U.S. Attorney’s office, recalls him giving a woeful speech at an early fundraiser. “He didn’t pander or try to appeal to the people in the audience,” Hennigan told me. “He just said what he thought and what he would do and that was that. I remember people putting their checkbooks back into their bags as they listened to him talk.”
A San Diego consultant Schiff had hired on the cheap came up with the slogan “Criminals Beware,” a nod to the law-and-order politics of the 1990s. Schiff spent much of his time knocking on doors in the hardest-hit areas, which may have seemed logical to a prosecutor but was disastrous as a campaign strategy. He finished 11th out of 13 candidates. “Adam called me up and said, ‘Clearly, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’d like to have a career in elected office,’ ” the political consultant Parke Skelton recalls. “ ‘What do I need to do?’ ”
Schiff ran for state Assembly again in 1994 and narrowly lost. Then, two years later, he announced his candidacy for a state Senate seat. His friends worried that if he was defeated a third time he’d be labeled a perennial loser; his political career would be over before it started. But with Skelton on board, he finally won, and he soon earned a reputation in Sacramento as a workaholic eager to make a name for himself. After only two years there, he caught the eye of Democratic donors and strategists.
David Geffen, the Hollywood music mogul, was fuming as he watched Bill Clinton’s impeachment on TV. One of the Republican leaders in the trial was a boisterous congressman named Jim Rogan, who represented Burbank and Pasadena. Geffen called one of his advisers and asked: “Can we beat this guy?” Within a few months, Schiff was recruited to run against Rogan, and he had the full backing of Los Angeles’s Democratic establishment. Geffen and Steven Spielberg hosted his first fundraiser; early donors included DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, Power Rangers creator Haim Saban, and former MCA chair Lew Wasserman. Schiff’s roommate in Sacramento and fellow Democratic state senator Jack O’Connell remembers Schiff spending every morning — 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. — calling Washington, D.C., on the house landline and asking for support.
The backdrop of Clinton’s impeachment — and Rogan’s prominent role in it — helped Schiff raise nearly $5 million from 30,000 donors. On the campaign trail, though, he presented himself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat focused on local issues. When asked by The New York Times to name a member of Congress he admired, he said Sam Nunn, a centrist Democrat from Georgia, who had recently retired from the Senate and was known for his expertise in national security; when asked for a second example of someone he admired, Schiff said Sam Nunn. By Election Day, the two candidates had spent $11.6 million — the most of any House race in history at the time. Schiff won by nearly nine points.
When Schiff got to Washington, he was given some advice. A new congressman could be one of three things: a pothole guy, a political operator, or a specialist. Pothole guys focus on sending money back to the district. Political operators get involved in electing more Democrats to Congress. Specialists pick an issue — taxes, the budget, education — and become experts in it. Schiff, who had gotten a taste of foreign policy and intelligence in the Richard Miller case, decided to be a specialist. When the attacks of September 11 occurred eight months into his first term, Schiff saw a vacuum in the Democratic Party and an opening for himself.
Since Vietnam, there hadn’t been much focus among Democrats on national security, Schiff told me. “I was also mindful of the fact that we were going to be locked out of the White House and the majority if the country didn’t trust Democrats to keep the country safe.” He formed a group with fellow Democrats to study national security and sought out people like Feinstein, a top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. He impressed then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi enough that, in 2008, she put him on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, a prestigious assignment. Still, there was no reason to think Schiff would become anything more than an influential insider and policy expert whom few people had heard of.
The House intelligence committee (referred to in Congress as HIP-see) stands apart from the cliquey culture of Capitol Hill. The staffers work side by side regardless of party in a secure, windowless office suite, known as “the Bunker,” three floors below the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Anyone entering must hand over his phone, Fitbit, and any other electronic storage device. There is no natural light, so staffers use UV lights to care for their office plants. (“Pale and ill-fed” is how Schiff describes the staff.) Until the past two years, most reports and bills produced by the committee were bipartisan.
Schiff found his calling down in the Bunker. The gravity of the work spoke to his lawyerly side, and the committee’s nonpartisan tradition appealed to the centrist in him. In 2015, when he was named its ranking member, he saw the position as a four-year commitment, and he decided to pass up the chance to run for the Senate in 2016 after Barbara Boxer chose to retire.
Soon, he found himself thrust into the most contentious issue of his time in Congress. Two weeks after Schiff and Feinstein released their statement about Russian interference, the Obama administration finally released its own, blaming “Russia’s senior-most officials” for the hack-and-dump operation targeting the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. Schiff felt that calling out the Russians was the best way to stop them, and he thought it had been a terrible mistake for the White House to be silent for so long, but he was still confident that Hillary Clinton would win.
On election night, Schiff and his staff watched the returns at the Burbank Bar and Grille, a favorite haunt. After Trump’s victory was called, Schiff says the mood was funereal. When he gathered his staff together back in D.C., a few days later, he struggled to find the words to reassure them. Half-jokingly, he said, “We’re all fucked.”
On the morning of March 20, 2017, two months to the day after Trump’s inauguration, the House intelligence committee held the first public hearing of its newly launched investigation into Russia’s attacks on the United States. Visitors, staff, and reporters filled every seat in Room 1100 in the Longworth congressional building for what was, by Washington, D.C., standards, a blockbuster. The coverage of the hearing would focus almost exclusively on FBI Director James Comey’s decision to confirm for the first time that the bureau had an open investigation into members of Trump’s presidential campaign. But a different sort of drama played out opposite Comey, between the Democratic and Republican members of the committee.
For weeks leading up to the hearing, the Democrats and their staffs had met to plot out and choreograph their lines of questioning. Each member would focus on one facet of the Trump-Russia controversy without any overlap or confusion. That strategy, coupled with Schiff’s lengthy opening and closing statements laying out the known facts of the case, showed just how seriously the Democrats were approaching the investigation. By their own admission, the Republicans were as haphazard as the Democrats were organized. Schiff later told me that Republicans he’d talked to had described the first public hearing as a calamity.
Two days after the hearing, Republican Devin Nunes of California, the chairman of the intelligence committee, held an impromptu press conference. He told reporters he had seen classified documents supporting President Trump’s claim that the Obama administration had spied on members of his transition team. Nunes hadn’t shared the information with Schiff nor had he given him an advance warning about the press conference; both actions broke with the norms that had guided the committee for decades.
Nunes wouldn’t reveal the source of the information, but he said he had shared the material with the White House. It soon emerged that Nunes had lied — that the material had come from the White House itself during a dead-of-night visit. Schiff held his own press conference declaring that Nunes’s “midnight run” had compromised him — that he was conspiring with the subject of an investigation that he was leading. An ethics probe was opened into whether Nunes had disclosed classified information, and he agreed to step aside until it was completed.
Schiff asked the White House if he could examine the same documents it had shown Nunes but received no response. A week after Nunes’s press conference, Schiff was watching TV in the Bunker when the White House announced that it had sent him a letter inviting him to view the documents. “You did?” Schiff said to the TV. “What letter?”
On cue, an aide walked in with the letter, which had arrived moments earlier. Schiff and his then–staff director, Michael Bahar, drove to the White House and met with staffers from the National Security Council. Schiff could examine the documents, he was told, but Bahar couldn’t. This was another break from the norm: Members of the intelligence committee typically review classified information in the presence of staff, so there’s a witness present. The two sides argued until a Trump aide intervened. “The president wants to speak to you” — pointing to Schiff — “in the Oval Office. But he” — pointing to Bahar — “can’t come.”
Schiff walked to the Oval Office, and President Trump greeted him. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘You do a really good job,’ ” Schiff told me. “I felt very awkward.” When Schiff told Trump that he was having trouble bringing his staffer with him to view the documents, the president said he didn’t have any problem with that. Schiff heard groans from the aides behind him, including then–chief of staff Reince Priebus.
After viewing the documents, Schiff and Bahar walked back to their car, parked in the driveway of the White House, and sat inside, trying to make sense of what had just happened. The documents did not confirm Trump’s accusation that the Obama administration had wiretapped his transition team. But Schiff also couldn’t reveal what the documents did say or he’d be disclosing classified intelligence. In that moment, he later told me, it hit him that he was enmeshed in an investigation-cum-spectacle unlike anything he’d experienced.
One reason the entire episode was so shocking was that, for years, Schiff and Nunes had worked well together. One newspaper called it “something of a bromance.” They even had matching Oakland Raiders jerseys with their names and district numbers on the back. But in Schiff’s eyes, the midnight run opened a schism between them that he feared was irreparable.
Being in the minority, Schiff had no subpoena power and no authority to lead the investigation on his own. But he could speak out — about the investigation’s latest developments, about related news outside of the committee, and about what he saw as a coordinated attempt to derail the probe. Schiff had gone on TV shows like Meet the Press in the past, but in the weeks and months that followed, he became a regular guest on MSNBC and CNN and NPR. The Republican National Committee began tracking his media appearances and issued a report this year titled “The Schiff Show” — say it aloud — that said he’d conducted 227 TV interviews over a 13-month span, a figure his office doesn’t dispute.
Becoming a ubiquitous media presence wasn’t a snap decision, Schiff says, but a gradual realization that what he was learning was so complex, it required someone to explain it, put it in context, and remind the public how it all fit together. As one of his Democratic colleagues likes to say, if Watergate was algebra, this was calculus. How Schiff presented himself, though, was a conscious strategy. He had a theory: He would have to speak calmly or people would just tune him out amid the noise of the Trump presidency. “The situation is so worrying or alarming, it would be easy to be in a panic about it all of the time,” he told me. “But I think to break through the clutter, you have to speak in rational terms or people will just disregard what you have to say.”
His presence on TV was a sharp contrast to the frenzy of cable news. He had a knack for taking thorny subjects and presenting them in digestible form. Pressed by CNN’s Jake Tapper on whether there was proof that people close to Trump had colluded with Russia, Schiff rattled off from memory all the times Russia approached the Trump campaign offering the hacked Clinton emails, the campaign’s eagerness to obtain those emails, and the interactions between the campaign and WikiLeaks, which eventually published the emails online. Proving a criminal conspiracy, Schiff said, was Mueller’s job. “But we do know this: The Russians offered help. The campaign accepted help. The Russians gave help. And the president made full use of that help,” he told Tapper. “You would have to believe that these were all isolated incidents, not connected to each other. It just doesn’t make rational sense.”
The more Schiff spoke out, the bigger his following grew, which made him even more in demand to speak out. There’s a phrase used by actors, “Feel your light,” that Michael Bahar, his former aide, uses to describe Schiff’s decision to seize this moment. “If you talk to him, he feels his light,” Bahar says. “He feels that this is the moment history has called him to play.”
“I always try to bring it back to the bigger picture of what’s taking place,” Schiff told me. Yes, the Russians are trying to undermine the idea of liberal democracy around the world. “But there’s also the danger from within: The president’s attacks on the free press, the justice system, his belittling of ‘so-called judges,’ the degrees to which he’s interfering with the Justice Department,” he went on. “That’s the other part of this that needs exposure. What the Russians did was bad enough. What we’re doing to ourselves is worse. We have to push back against both.”
As Schiff’s profile soared, though, the House intelligence committee’s investigation was heading toward collapse. From the start, Schiff had said he wanted the committee’s final report to be bipartisan — an aide of his told me last year that anything less would be “a disaster” — but the prospects of that dimmed with each month. President Trump used Twitter to disparage the investigation and demand that it be shut down. (“DO SOMETHING!” was a typical Trump tweet.) In December, Nunes was cleared of any ethics violations, and he escalated parallel investigations into alleged corruption and anti-Trump bias in the Justice Department and the FBI. Schiff and the Democrats saw these efforts as a tactic to undermine the work of Robert Mueller and distract from Russia. At this point, Schiff told me, the committee was bringing in as many witnesses for its side investigations as it was for the Russia investigation. “They have gone into hyperdrive to put the government on trial,” he said, “which is what a defense attorney does when the facts for their client are really bad.”
Schiff’s staff got in the habit of watching Fox News each evening to learn what Nunes had planned for the next day. The leaks coming out of the committee grew so frequent that the Senate intelligence committee’s top Republican and Democrat issued a plea for their counterparts in the House to stop their infighting. In March, Nunes ended the investigation, later releasing a final report without any Democratic input. It found that there was no collusion and that there was no evidence Russia intended to help Trump, despite the four major intelligence agencies all concluding that the opposite was true. By that point, it wasn’t the Russian effort to sow discord that seemed to trouble Schiff most. It was the unwillingness of Republicans to stand up to the president publicly, even though some had privately urged him to push the investigation forward.
Most of Schiff’s Republican colleagues declined to be interviewed about him. But Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a former prosecutor like Schiff, told me he saw a double standard in his actions. He noted that Schiff was now calling for transparency and bipartisanship after he spent two and a half years obstructing the Benghazi investigation that Gowdy had led. He accused Schiff of dismissing or avoiding lines of investigation in the Russia probe — like who paid for the infamous Steele dossier — that could implicate the Democratic Party. “I think Adam’s a good lawyer,” Gowdy said. “I think he’s an even better politician.” (Schiff responded in a statement: “I did work on a completely bipartisan investigation of Benghazi — on the House intelligence committee led by Republican Mike Rogers. We worked together well and came to a bipartisan conclusion. The Benghazi Select Committee, chaired by Trey Gowdy, had a partisan and illegitimate purpose from the beginning as [Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy acknowledged: It was designed only to tear down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers.”)
Schiff and his Democratic colleagues on the committee say they will press on with their own Russia investigation. There’s an obvious incentive to keep it alive until November: If Democrats win back the House, Schiff would become chair and have subpoena power.
It was only a matter of time before Schiff found himself in the blast zone of a tweet by President Trump: “Sleazy Adam Schiff, the totally biased Congressman looking into ‘Russia,’ spends all of his time on television pushing the Dem loss excuse!” A day later, Schiff was sitting in his Capitol Hill office, unable to suppress a smile. He seemed equal parts disturbed and flattered by Trump’s attack. “I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from my colleagues who are quite envious of me,” he told me. “Some of my committee colleagues are threatening to make a button that says I’m with Sleazy.”
The president is far from the only one to take aim at Schiff. Among Trump supporters, he has become a bête noire. Fox News host Tucker Carlson called him “a liar and a demagogue.” Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones threatened him with bodily harm during an on-air rant. (Jones later said his comments were “clearly tongue-in-cheek and basically art performance.”) Recently, Schiff was back in his district when he heard a man yell from across the street, “There’s that asshole! There’s that son of a bitch, Adam Schiff!” This has only made his following all the more fervent. “In many ways, I feel like a human focus group now,” he says.
Schiff’s office is unusual in the number of staff who have worked for him for ten years or more, and they have noticed a change in how he’s received. “He used to be just Adam,” Tim Bergreen, a senior aide on the intelligence committee and former longtime chief of staff, told me. “Now, I call him Mr. Schiff sometimes, not to his face. He’s a serious national figure now, not just the congressman I’ve been working for for a while.”
Schiff says that the Russia investigation has typecast him — that it overshadows his years of expertise in national security — but he also acknowledges that it has given him newfound stature. He’s so popular with the Democratic base that by mid-July he’d raised $3.5 million for the party’s congressional candidates. At the same time, he has urged progressives to be more cautious about wanting to impeach Trump. This was another of those synchronicities — the backlash to Clinton’s impeachment had helped him get elected to Congress.
He had considered running for Senate this year if Feinstein decided to retire, but he put those plans on hold when she chose to seek a fifth term. (A popular rumor making the rounds in Washington and California is that Feinstein wants to serve long enough to see Trump out of office and then persuade the governor to pick Schiff as her replacement. Schiff’s office wouldn’t comment. Feinstein says she’s committed to serving the full term.) And were the Democrats to regain the White House, Schiff surely would be on the shortlist for CIA chief or director of national intelligence. That his rapid ascent would not have happened without Trump is an irony he recognizes but says he doesn’t dwell on. “I feel no sense of moral ambiguity about what I’m doing,” he told me.
What worries him the most, he says, is that the various Russia investigations, whenever they’re finished, won’t make any difference. Over the past year, Schiff has been listening to the first season of the podcast Slow Burn, about the Watergate scandal. The parallels he found between Watergate and Russia were striking: a Democratic National Committee break-in, conspiracy theorists on both sides, a president fueled by paranoia. During our last conversation, he brought up the tapes that marked the tipping point in the scandal and led to Nixon’s resignation. “Even if we had tapes today,” Schiff told me, “Trump has something Nixon didn’t have. Trump has Fox News and a whole alternate-information ecosystem that his die-hard supporters can live in. It may be the case that if Nixon had that, he never would have been forced out of office. That’s a pretty startling realization.”