Now in his 11th term representing California’s 28th District, Congressman
Adam Schiff chairs the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on
Intelligence and is a member of Select Committee on the January 6 attack on
the U.S. Capitol. He was appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a lead
manager in the impeachment case against former President Donald Trump
during his trial in the U.S. Senate. In his new memoir, Midnight in
Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could, Schiff
recounts, in harrowing detail, the final weeks of the Trump presidency
leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the implications for democracy in
the U.S. in its aftermath. Schiff spoke to Los Angeles from Washington D.C.
on Oct 15.
One of the questions that you grapple with in your book is how so many Republicans, including colleagues that you had previous relationships in Congress, changed for the worse under the Trump presidency. How did Trumpism make the GOP unrecognizable to you?
It was really remarkable that in a few short years this deeply flawed human
was able to completely remake one of America’s major parties in his image.
And I saw this take place over time, as colleagues that I liked and respected
because I believed that they believed what they were saying, turns out that
they didn’t believe what they were saying or that nothing was quite so
important as maintaining their position in the House or advancing within the
House or maybe advancing to the Senate or getting a Cabinet post. I wanted
to show what that’s like day-to-day as people begin with small sacrifices of
their beliefs, and even their morality, and it leads to bigger and bigger
sacrifices. Robert Caro, the historian, once said that power doesn’t corrupt as
much as it reveals. And it did reveal a lot about members of Congress who
would not uphold their oath when the country really needed it.
It also revealed some great heroes like Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill and
Lieutenant Colonel [Alexander] Vindman, Dan Coats and Bill Taylor and
others who did their duty, were courageous and, for some, it cost them their
jobs. But finally power over the last several years revealed a lot about the
country itself and how much anger and hostility and bigotry lay beneath the
surface that was waiting for a demagogue to mine. And I needed to write
How did you become—and remain–such a target for hatred among
the far right?
I was – through no merit of my own – in a position where I could do something
about this attack on our democracy. The [Russian election interference]
investigation landed in the Intelligence Committee when I was ranking
member and then during the Ukraine investigation when I was the chair. So I
was in a position to make a difference and that did not escape the notice of
Donald Trump. Plus, I was very vocal about calling out the president for his
misconduct and his rampant falsehoods. And finally, Donald Trump needs
enemies. He thrives on that kind of conflict. And he needed, once Mueller
was no longer the predominant threat, a new villain. And I fit the bill.
As a young Los Angles U.S. attorney in 1990, you secured an espionage conviction against Richard Miller, an FBI counterintelligence agent, for selling secrets to the Russians. How did that inform your understanding of Russian influence in the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump?
In the same way that the Kremlin and Russian intelligence recognized
Richard Miller as an easy mark – his philandering, his dishonesty, his greed –
they saw those same qualities in Donald Trump, in terms of what you look for
as someone vulnerable to compromise. In the case of Miller, the Russians
dangled $50,000 in gold in front of him. But with Trump it was almost easier
because Trump made it known that he wanted to build Trump Tower Moscow
and sought the Kremlin’s help to do it while he was running for president and
lying about it to the country.
I think that Putin recognized, without the need for any great sophistication,
that this was the kind of corrupt businessman that he could easily
manipulate with nothing more than flattery and praise. You didn’t need to be
a genius to figure that out; you didn’t need any great analysis by Russian
intelligence to figure out how to manipulate Donald Trump.
Having led two impeachments, you are now a member of the January 6 Commission and know better than anyone the lengths to which former members of the Trump administration will go to ignore subpoenas. Steve Bannon has defied the committee’s subpoena and Trump has instructed other associates to do the same. What can the American people expect?
They can expect us to move very quickly and that we’re not fooling around.
On Tuesday, we are going to vote on a report holding Steve Bannon in
criminal contempt and we will soon take that matter on the House floor and
refer it to the Justice Department, which by law has a duty to bring it to the
grand jury. So we are moving as fast as we can. During the Trump years,
Steve Bannon came into the Intelligence Committee when he was
subpoenaed to testify, at that time by the Republicans leading the
investigation in our committee, and refused to answer any more than 25
questions. And the 25 questions had been written out for him in advance by
the White House. And they let him get away with it. During the Trump
administration there were attorney generals more than willing to use the
Justice Department as Donald Trump’s criminal defense firm. They were not
going to pursue anyone who was covering up for the president.
Such as former Attorney General William Barr?
I think it goes back to what we talked about earlier, about how power reveals
who people are. And I think that when Bill Barr was surrounded by George
Herbert Walker Bush in his first iteration as Attorney General he was one
kind of person, or at least appeared to be. But when he was tethered to a
person of low character, he proved to be willing to do almost anything for a
chance to sit at the seat of power again. And I have to think it was a bitter
shock to Bob Mueller to realize that his work, his painstaking work, would be
so badly misrepresented to the country. It’s different now. We have a Justice
Department with an Attorney General committed to the rule of law and the
principle that no one is above that law.
There’s widespread suspicion that the insurrectionists who invaded
the Capitol may have had help on the inside, including from elected
members of Congress. How far is the January 6 Commission willing
to go if in fact that turns out to be the case?
On a very bipartisan basis, we are committed to follow the evidence wherever
it leads. Nothing is off the table and no one is beyond examination. And if
that road leads back to members of Congress then that’s where it leads. If it
leads further into the White House, then that’s where it leads. We are
determined to get answers about what role the former president and high
Trump administration officials played, what role the white nationalist groups
played, what role members of Congress have played. We want to prepare a
definitive report for the American people who have both the right to know
but a need to know because at the end of the day the whole mission of the
Select Committee is accountability and ensuring that it never happens again.
Trump and others lionized Ashli Babbitt as a hero after she was
killed in the act of invading the Capitol and trying to disrupt the
peaceful transfer of power. What is the message you derive from
That the danger is very much with us. That we have not passed through this
period yet. The [former] president is still out there pushing the big lie and
making heroes of insurrectionists. They paraded a flag used during the
insurrection at a Trump rally for the Virginia candidate for governor. And the
[former] president continued to push out falsehoods and threatened to not
participate in the electoral process if they won’t find non-existent fraud in
the last election. It’s really dangerous because it is undermining the
foundation of our democracy and that elections decide who governs us. If
you don’t think elections can fairly decide who will represent us then that
leaves the country open to the alternative, which is violence. So what they
are doing is deeply dangerous, it’s led to one bloody attack on the Capitol, it
could lead to another.
But even more worrisome is this effort to overturn the election by other
means, by stripping independent elections officials around the country of
their duties and giving them to partisan boards and to legislatures that will
do what they failed to do in the last election, which is if they can’t find a
secretary of state willing to discover 11,780 votes that don’t exist, as they
sought to get in Georgia, they will find someone who will.
How has the big lie—and all the attendant attacks on facts—affected
We are at a time–and one of my colleagues, Representative Mike Quigley,
put this so well–where it used to be that people would say: I’ll believe it
when I see it. Now people say: I won’t see it until I believe it. You can show
them a video of people on January 6 beating police officers and gouging
them, and they will still believe that day was a love fest, because they are
not ready to believe it. They are told repeatedly by the leader of their party
that you can’t believe your eyes, you can only believe him. It’s the message
of autocrats everywhere. And it’s a dangerous message. There is a
dangerous flirtation within the Republican party for authoritarianism right
now. As long as the Republican party is an autocratic cult around the former
president, they’re just going to have to be beaten at the polls. There is no
accommodating those who would seek to tear down our democracy.
You wrote that during the first impeachment trial, as you prepared
your summation, there didn’t seem to be much question about the
president’s guilt, but rather what it would take get someone in the
president’s party to vote to convict.
That is exactly the challenge that we faced and, frankly, the challenge that
we continue to face. There’s no flaw that I can discern in our Constitution,
there’s no flaw in the impeachment remedy. The flaw is in ourselves. If
members of Congress are not willing to honor their oath, if they are not
willing to apply right and wrong, if they are not willing to be truthful, if
they’re not willing to be courageous, then none of it works. And it particularly
doesn’t work, as the Founders knew, if people put their faction over their
I’ve introduced a package of reforms, the Protecting our Democracy Act, that
addresses so many of the guardrails that the Trump administration broke.