Adam Schiff Is Ready to Rumble

The mild-mannered, vegan congressman from Burbank has become the GOP’s worst nightmare—but is he tough enough to take on the Trump smear machine?
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The day after Republicans had attempted to storm the secure hearing room where Adam Schiff was conducting the impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump, the unflappable Los Angeles congressman was seated behind a desk in his D.C. office looking very much unflapped.

Dressed in standard-issue DC raiment—sober blue suit, white dress shirt, sky-blue tie, cognac-colored brogues—he drew a chair up to a small cherrywood table. Only then, thus settled, did he allow himself a smile, a quick compression of the lips that conveyed his preternatural calm amid the impeachment madness that has engulfed the country.

Through his window and across Independence Avenue, we had a clear view of the Capitol, where the failed putsch had been staged. “Let us in! Let us in!” the two dozen or so GOP House members had cried before barging into the secured room that half of them were authorized to enter. Meanwhile, less than two miles away, President Donald Trump, in one of his signature Twitter rages, was sending out a series of tweets charging Schiff with everything from having a “pencil neck” to treason.

Such is life now for Schiff, the heretofore low-key congressman whose pre-Trump legislative priorities included a battle to reduce helicopter noise over his L.A. district. Before the impeachment inquiry Schiff was known for eschewing fame while representing a town—Hollywood—built on it.

He is world-famous now. The chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence can now see himself caricatured on Saturday Night Live. In Trump’s Twitterverse, he’s the limp, Ivy League-educated elitist scheming to bring down the President of the Real America. To his supporters, he is Elliot Ness chasing Al Capone, Joseph Welch facing down Joseph McCarthy. Which of these images wins out may ultimately determine nothing less than the fate of the free world.

Or, as Schiff put it while sitting in his office, his expression indicating a half-hearted attempt at gallows humor: “Just another day.”

He may not want to play the leading man, but Schiff’s confrontation of Trump is the stuff of a Frank Capra film. The by-the-book former prosecutor, who seems every bit the embodiment of the process he champions, is poised to take down a president whose primary mission has been to blow up the system for his own gain, regardless of how many laws (or reputations) were trampled in the process.

adam schiff

Isak Tiner

Schiff has had many “just another days” since the advent of Donald Trump as president. At no time has that been more the case than the weeks following the emergence in late September of a whistle-blower and the revelation that Trump—having somehow survived the investigation into Russia’s hack of the 2016 election—withheld aide to Ukraine unless the country’s president agreed to help him smear his potential Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Schiff had already blipped on the tweeter-in-chief’s radar in March for saying that he had seen “significant evidence of collusion” with Russia. The president countered with a barrage of nicknames — “Adam Schitt!”—that would make a clever ten-year-old roll their eyes.

“Someone called the office and said, ‘I’m going to put three bullets in the back of your head, and this is the gun I’m going to use.’ ”

When the impeachment inquiry opened, and Schiff replaced Robert Mueller as the existential threat to Trump’s presidency, Trump and his GOP henchmen trained their full hyperbolic artillery on the “congessman from Hollywood.”  The attacks intensified after Schiff paraphrased the written summation of a telephone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rather than reading straight from the summation, culminating (for now) in the absurd blitz of the “secret” impeachment hearings. “He’s a liar!” Trump tweeted.  “Behold the Lord High Impeacher,” sneered a headline in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section. Meanwhile the usual suspects at Fox News—Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro—spewed their daily invective. In yet another sign of the times, the evangelical preacher and best-selling author Perry Stone claimed that Schiff and other Democratic lawmakers were possessed by demons and trying to “place hexes” on Trump.

The demonization campaign also has had its darker side. “Someone called the office and said, ‘I’m going to put three bullets in the back of your head, and this is the gun I’m going to use,’ ” Schiff told me. A Major League Baseball umpire tweeted in October that he would “be buying an AR-15 tomorrow,” and there would be “another cival (sic) war” if Trump was impeached.

If positions of power are known for accelerating the aging process, Schiff somehow missed the memo. With a roundish, open face that pinkens when he is exercised, which is rare, he looks far younger than his 59 years. Schiff, a vegan, is trim and athletic, partially the result of numerous marathons and triathlons.

I met with Schiff several times over the past few months in DC, at his Burbank office, and at events in Los Angeles. The Adam Schiff I met in person is the Adam Schiff I saw on television: earnest, self-possessed, and, perhaps in the biggest contrast with Trump, able to form full sentences.

I visited him the day after the Republican attempt to disrupt the hearings, which Schiff spoke of with a mixture of irritation and faint amusement. “We knew they were planning some kind of a stunt,” Schiff told me. “We didn’t know what kind, but we knew something was up because they had a [press conference] podium set up with a list of [speakers’] names.”

His reaction was pure Schiff: “I excused the witness so that she would not have to be part of it,” he said. “Then I left the room. Eventually, they got bored and left.

“They were disappointed,” he added. “They wanted a confrontation.” As it happens, they got one. According to a transcript of the proceedings released afterward, Schiff reserved special bile for Matt Gaetz, the fratty Florida Republican who has been one of the president’s most vocal Congressional cheerleaders. “Mr. Gaetz, please absent yourself!” Schiff said sternly when Gaetz crashed the hearing in violation of House rules.  “You’re going to have someone remove from the hearing?” Gaetz replied with surprise. “No,” Schiff shot back. “You’re going to remove yourself.”

The Trump campaign created T-shirts portraying Schiff as a “pencil neck”

Schiff has been even more confrontational in other moments, but always within limits. He no longer feels compelled to reply to every presidential insult. When he does he strives for wit in contrast to Trump’s gutter humor. “Mike Thompson, my colleague from Napa, stopped me once, and he said, ‘Adam you should respond on Twitter, “Mr. President, when they go low, we go high—Go ‘F’ yourself.” ’ I said, ‘My God, I don’t think I can pull that off.’ ”

Schiff, who has dabbled in stand-up comedy at Democratic fundraisers, nonetheless hasn’t shied from directly jabbing Trump. He has mocked the president, for example, for his inability to come up with a nickname for the lawmaker that sticks. “It’s odd,” Schiff said, “because, as you know, the kind of cardinal rule of nicknames is you pick one and stick with it. But I’ve had like seven or eight by now.”

He finds the “conspiracy stuff” that Trump’s attacks foster less humorous. A man named Anthony Comello attempted to make a “citizen’s arrest” of Schiff after reading an outlandish QAnon conspiracy. Not long after, Comello was charged with murder when he shot and killed a mob boss he was convinced was part of the “deep state.” Comello’s lawyer argued that his client only shot Francesco “Frank” Cali after the mobster resisted Comello’s citizen’s arrest.

Schiff makes no attempt to hide his contempt for Trump. One of my visits with him came just after the president mocked Elijah Cummings, whose home had recently been burglarized. When I asked Schiff if he thought Trump was racist, he responded bluntly.

“Yes,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question about it. And you know it’s startling to come to the conclusion that the president of the United States is racist, but there’s no denying the facts. And we just have to make sure that his fundamental calculation that that’s a good political strategy is dead wrong. And God help us if we can’t.”

Regarding Trump’s more serious attacks, Schiff was equally direct: “Preaching hate is dangerous,” he told me. “This president gets up every day determined to find new and innovative ways to divide us. I think it’s really tearing the social fabric of the country apart. Meanwhile it has also legitimized a lot of bigotry that was there below the surface [that]people now feel free to express.”

Equanimity comes naturally to Schiff, but it’s also a part of a conscious strategy. “I do think that this is such a head-on-fire kind of a time that there’s a premium amount of people talking rationally. Along the way I’ve had people say, ‘You need to get angrier. You need to yell.’ I say, ‘Look, there are plenty of people getting angry right now. That’s just not who I am.’ And I think people in my line of work who have a problem, it’s often because they try to be something they’re not or someone they’re not. I’ve never tried to be anything other than what I am, and so I tell those who are looking for someone more incendiary there are lots of other choices.”

The other advantage, Schiff said, is that when he does show anger people pay far closer attention. “If you’re not angry all the time,” he said, “then people do notice when you are. And it tends to have more of an impact.”

“You’re Adam Schiff, right?”

Oh, boy, Schiff recalled thinking, sensing the man wasn’t an admirer.

“Yes.”

In a simpler time, when Donald Trump was still a reality TV blowhard, and Schiff was an almost-anonymous congressman, someone approaching him would be little cause for worry. He probably would have been flattered that someone had recognized him. But as a fixture on cable news and Sunday morning talk shows, and a punching bag to conservative media, he’s always on guard these days.

Schiff, who was waiting for an Uber outside Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, figured that things would go one of two ways: Either this would end up like the time at Logan International Airport in Boston when a guy demanded to know, “Are you for real? Are you for real?” (“I’d like to think so,” Schiff answered), or, only slightly better, it would go like the time a woman asked, “Why do you lie all the time?” (A third option was unsettling for different reasons: “I had someone come up to me at a mall—I was with my son—and they said, ‘You’re one of the reasons why life is still worth living.’ My son looked up at me and says, ‘Really? Really?’”) In this instance, the man leaned in and grumbled conspiratorially, “So, you can tell me,” he said. “There is nothing to this collusion stuff is there?”

Schiff searched the man’s face for sarcasm, but he looked sincere. “I said, ‘Let me ask you a question,” he recounted. “Let’s say that I told you during the campaign the Russians approached Chelsea Clinton, and they said, ‘We have dirt on Donald Trump, which we will offer you as part of the Russian government’s efforts to help the Clinton campaign,’ and they put it in writing.

“And Chelsea’s reaction was: ‘If it’s what you say it is, I would love it.’ Then Chelsea arranged a secret meeting in their Brooklyn headquarters. She brought in John Podesta and other high-ranking people to get this dirt. And their only disappointment is that the dirt they got wasn’t better dirt. But they lied about ever having a meeting, and when the meeting was discovered, they lied about what the meeting was about. They said it was about adoptions, right? Hillary Clinton herself was involved in dictating the lie. Would you consider that the Clinton campaign was colluding with the Russians?”

“I think I see where you’re going here,” the man said.

“So, let me ask you one other question,” Schiff continued. “What if I told you that Susan Rice, as national security adviser, was secretly talking to the Russian ambassador to undermine bipartisan U.S. policy on sanctions against Russia? Would you say that Susan Rice was colluding? And then she lied about the FBI? Would you call that collusion?”

“You know,” the man said, “I probably would.”

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, Eureka!’ ” Schiff said. “If I can just talk to 100 million more people like that, we’d all be on the same page. So there are breakthrough moments, but they’re rare. In this kind of climate they’re rare.”

People tend to put Schiff in a “wonk box” labeled with words like “boring,” “bland,” “uncharismatic,” and “unfunny.” Al Gore got put in that box. So did Hillary Clinton. Neither got out.

But there’s more to Schiff than his mild manners. His tweets, for one thing, are genuinely funny. “When Trump [first started tweeting at me], I felt compelled to respond every time,” Schiff said. “But his attacks have gotten so frequent now that we don’t want to dignify them. When we do choose to respond, I’ve always favored just mocking the president’s behavior.

“I think humor is a very underutilized tool in politics, and it’s often much more effective to disarm an attack than appearing defensive about something. And, of course, the president leaves himself open to such incredible mockery because so much of what he does and says is internally inconsistent, hypocritical, nonsensical …”

Buffoonish? I offered.

“Yes. I’ve used that word,” he said.

Schiff doesn’t reserve his barbs just for Trump, however. Every year for the past decade or so, he has performed a stand-up set as part of a Democratic fundraiser. “We do it at the Improv or the Comedy Store or Flappers in Burbank,” he said. His act, he conceded, is often “uneven.”

“I always leave it to the very end to write my material, which is dangerous,” he said. “I can write it on the plane on the way out to California. It involves a few jokes. It usually involves a top ten list. … Last year I did the top ten things I learned at Trump University. This year I did a whole riff on the Trump administration and Hollywood, all the connections between the administration and Hollywood.

“I had one about Kellyanne Conway being offered the role in The Bride of Frankenstein until Frankenstein said, ‘Hell no.’”

Few would be surprised to hear that Schiff is not a natural at comedy. More might be shocked to find out that politics also didn’t come easily.

adam schiff

Isak Tiner

Born on June 22,1960, Adam Bennett Schiff spent his early childhood in Framingham, Massachusetts, a town of about 68,000 a little more than 20 miles outside of Boston.

His father, Ed, served in the Army just after World War II and graduated from the University of Alabama before launching a career as a traveling salesman “in what he called the schmatta business, the rag business,” Schiff said, echoing his dad’s use of the Yiddish slang. His mother, Sherri—possessed of the keen wit and dry sense of humor her son would inherit—wrote ad copy before entering the real estate profession.

Young Adam was studious and quiet, a good kid who did his homework. Even then he played things close to the vest. His mother said in a 2000 interview that her son kept so much to himself that she didn’t even know whether he was dating. If he got his sense of humor from his parents, he cut his debating teeth in a friendly but intensely competitive rivalry with his older brother by two years, Daniel. Adam later wrote a never-produced screenplay about the relationship, Common Wall, the first of many never-produced scripts he would write. He has kept up the habit since entering politics, though he’s turned to spy thrillers.

In 1970 the family headed west after his father was transferred to Arizona. Two years later they moved to Alamo, California, an unincorporated community about 20 miles east of Oakland. There, Ed, fed up with life on the road, bought a lumberyard, providing Adam his introduction to the working life.

By that time Schiff had also received a taste of the partisan political divide—in his own household. On one side stood his father, a staunch supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had long voted straight Democrat. His mother, on the other hand, hailed from a long line of prominent Republicans, including her father, who was a county chair for the GOP. (To this day one of Schiff’s prized possessions, prominently displayed in his Rayburn office, is a framed black-and-white photograph of his grandfather with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.) Schiff remembers his parents’ political divide with nostalgia and humor. In an era of profane tweets, casual racism, and schoolyard-bully nicknames, Schiff said his family’s political differences seem quaint in comparison.

By the time he was a teenager, Schiff had made up his own mind when it came to politics. Like many young men, particularly from the Boston area, he came to deeply admire John F. Kennedy. However, at Monta Vista High School in nearby Danville, swimming, tennis, and hitting the books were Schiff’s primary preoccupations. He was still “the quiet kid”—so much so that he was surprised when he was voted Most Likely to Succeed. “I was totally shocked,” he said. “I didn’t think anybody in the school knew who I was.”

Recruiters from some of the country’s top colleges did. The boring choice would have been the unofficial family school—Dartmouth—attended by a number of relatives from his mother’s side. Schiff instead chose Stanford, where he dashed another of his mother’s dreams by choosing law over medicine. He returned to Boston to earn his J.D. from Harvard Law after working for a short time as a Forest Service firefighter. “It was a very brief tenure,” he said, but the experience stuck with him enough that he battled to have night flights allowed after the 2009 Station fire that claimed the lives of two firefighters.

He wound up back in California when he took a law clerkship in Los Angeles. “I had never lived in L.A.,” he said. “I got stuck in traffic, and I’ve been there ever since.” It’s a bit of a canned line—he has a few at the ready—but in an age of off-the-cuff provocations, Schiff is betting that the tried and true have their charms.

After a year at a law firm, he landed as a prosecutor with the Los Angeles branch of the U.S. Attorney’s office. There, in an eerie bit of foreshadowing, Schiff made his bones prosecuting an FBI agent named Richard Miller who was accused of selling secrets to the Soviets. The case had it all: an agent who spoke of his “James Bond” fantasy, a beautiful KGB agent named Svetlana who seduced Miller, cash, gold, international intrigue. The government’s first two cracks at conviction failed: The first trial ended in a mistrial. Prosecutors won a conviction on the second try, but an appeals judge overturned the verdict. Schiff’s superiors turned to him for the retrial, and in 1990 he secured the first-ever espionage conviction against an FBI agent.

That was a momentous year in Schiff’s personal life. Some friends had arranged a doubles match in Marina del Rey with a woman named Eve Sanderson. The pair laughed at what they were in for if they began dating: Schiff foresaw a lot of Adam-and-Eve jokes. If anything they found the names endearing and entered a relationship that culminated in their marriage five years later, February 19, 1995.

By that time Schiff had surprised everyone close to him, abandoning his career as a prosecutor shortly after the Miller triumph. He’d been mulling a switch to politics for some time. Figuring that he would be hard-pressed to get a bigger, more fulfilling case than the FBI agent conviction, he decided to run for office. In his first race, an attempt to win an open Assembly seat, he finished 11th out of 13 candidates. He chose to view the defeat as a wake-up call rather than a sign that he made a mistake seeking office. If he really wanted to win, he decided he needed to do more than be a nice guy and knock on a few doors.

“I didn’t know anything when I first ran,” he said. “It took me a while just to learn to campaign.” For one he needed to learn how to quickly frame an issue in a way that didn’t come off as insincere or platitudinous. “In a way it reminds me of trying to get used to Twitter,” said Schiff, whose Twitter game has earned him 1.6 million followers. “When you’re running for office, you have 30, 60, 90 seconds to answer a question in a debate. I kind of bristled against it [at first]. But then I realized, OK, there’s a discipline about this. You need to really crystallize your thinking. You need to understand the issue, but you also need to communicate about it succinctly.” He would lose again three years later but by a much narrower margin.

While he put up a brave face, Schiff wasn’t accustomed to failure, and those close to him saw the toll the losses took. One of those confidants was a young man named David McMillan, whom Schiff had taken on in 1985 as part of the Big Brother mentorship program. On one of their first outings, McMillan said, Schiff brought him to the beach. “He picked me up in Inglewood, and we went to Venice Beach and hung out,” he recalled. “It was not the best weather, and the waves were super choppy, but we went in and had a great time. At the end of the day we dubbed ourselves ‘the survivors.’ So that’s been the running joke all these many years since we’re surviving still.”

McMillan said Schiff took those first losses hard. “In all of the moments knowing Adam,” he said, “Schiff was the most, dare I say, depressed about those. Just because he worked his ass off and walked those precincts.”

Schiff’s stubborn persistence paid off in his third race, a 1996 campaign for the state Senate. That time he won—and by a healthy margin. “I used to quote Churchill a lot around that time,” Schiff said, “when I ran for the Assembly and lost twice and then ran for the state Senate and won. When Churchill was unceremoniously thrown out at the end of World War II, he said, ‘People keep telling me my losing is a blessing in disguise. It is evidently a blessing well disguised.’ My losing the Assembly races was a blessing well disguised because I was then elected to the Senate.”

In Sacramento, Schiff quickly earned a reputation as a tireless worker who believed in what he was doing. “He was just amazingly focused and very smart,” recalled Jack O’Connell, a former fellow state senator who rented a room in his Sacramento house to Schiff for the four years Schiff worked in the Legislature.

When Schiff was recruited to run for Congress, O’Connell marveled at his tenant’s seemingly boundless energy. “He would at times take the red-eye to DC to meet with people and maybe have a fundraising breakfast and get back on the plane and be in our committee hearings in the afternoon,” he said. “I don’t know how he did it.”

It wasn’t only hard work that earned him the congressional seat. In another coincidence, his opponent was James E. Rogan, whose GOP star had ascended thanks to his central prosecutorial role in Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. The race was heated, ugly, and costly. It would become the most expensive House race in U.S. history at that time, with the candidates raising and spending more than $10 million between them. (A harbinger of how expensive things would get came early: Schiff’s first fundraiser was cohosted by entertainment titans David Geffen and director Steven Spielberg.)

adam schiff impeachment
Schiff having a moment with freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez (D-NY)

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Schiff’s work ethic—and slight dorkiness —was on full display in June during one of several days that I followed him. His day began early with a morning “hit” on NBC, an interview carried out in a small hallway just off of the Rotunda.

Schiff, in his habitual dark suit, typically doesn’t fidget. He is as relaxed in person as he seems on television, a demeanor that earned him the nickname “the smooth jazz congressman” from liberal radio host and comedian Stephanie Miller. He was fumbling on this day, however, with a tie bar given to him by his son, Elijah, as a 59th birthday gift. “I’ve never worn one,” he said as a staffer helped him.

The rest of the day included House votes, a meeting with a delegation of Armenian interns, a radio interview on the Mueller investigation, recording several spots for the Democratic Caucus, and, finally, an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

As Schiff drove me to the studio, he looked almost cool in his reflective shades. (It’s a fleeting moment. He drives an Audi whose license plate frame bears a line from The Big Lebowski: “I don’t roll on Shabbos.”) Once inside the studio, just before he was miked up, Schiff tapped a small toy wolf on a shelf. “It’s a tradition,” he said, “for good luck.” At Blitzer’s desk—a small, red, glass-topped island in a sea of Pacific-blue tile—Schiff waited patiently as Blitzer recounted the day’s news, including Trump’s callous reaction to a photo of two immigrants, a father and daughter, found dead on a riverbank near the Mexico-U.S. border. “Does it ever stop?” Blitzer asked. The congressman responded with a withering takedown of Trump that left the room silent for a moment.

On the way back to his car, Schiff still seemed incensed, showing the rare flash of anger he had spoken about earlier. But there was no time to dwell—fresh outrages were piling up almost hourly. As fate would have it, he was one of the few people in America who could do something about it.


RELATED: At Mueller Hearing, Adam Schiff Attacks Trump’s “Lies” and “Disloyalty to Country”


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