Adam Schiff hopes to fight Donald Trump with facts

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ONLY A PARTISAN Republican could describe the congressman for Tinseltown as a “Hollywood liberal”. Though socially liberal, Adam Schiff, a 58-year-old former federal prosecutor, is a fiscally sensible moderate with national-security chops. He is also, despite being the likely next chairman of the House intelligence committee, hardly anyone’s idea of box office.

As the ranking Democrat on a committee that has degenerated to dog-eat-dog partisanship and conspiracy-mongering under Devin Nunes, Mr Schiff has been much provoked in the past 18 months. He remains relentlessly measured and low-key. A look of pained consternation, over his Republican colleagues’ latest attack or intelligence leak, is as animated as he gets. “I think they will have a lot to answer for when this chapter of history is written,” he says, more in sorrow than rage. Yet Mr Schiff, though neither charismatic nor fiery, qualities that some Democrats think indispensable to resisting the president, will soon lead that effort.

He will be responsible for holding Donald Trump to account on the president’s main vulnerability: his dealings with Russia. In part this will mean backing Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s effort to get Mr Trump elected. Mr Nunes has tried to obstruct and discredit the special counsel. Mr Schiff will provide him with testimonies gathered by the committee’s own Russia investigation, which Mr Nunes has refused to release.

He also means to continue the committee’s probe. Indeed, though its Republican contingent prematurely declared the inquiry over, he and his Democratic colleagues never stopped investigating. With control of the committee’s staff and subpoena power, which House committees, unlike the more collegial Senate, reserve for the majority party, their effort will soon be more imposing. “The highest priority will be not to reinvent the wheel but to look at investigating threads the Republicans stopped us looking at,” he says. “There are any number that were in the category of conspiracy or collusion that we were not able to pursue.”

This points to the main danger for House Democrats bent on applying oversight to the administration. It has generated such a lot of sleaze and intrigue—also including the conflicts of Ryan Zinke and Wilbur Ross, the policy blunders at the borders and in Puerto Rico, the president’s attacks on governing norms—that the watchdogs will simply have too much to grapple with. The temptation will be to spread themselves too thinly and lose focus on what matters most. That would also turn off ordinary Americans. Having little interest in the details of 47 different Trump scandals, many would view the Democratic onslaught, however justified, as over-egged and needlessly partisan. Mr Trump, by fulminating against witch-hunts and firing off fictitious accusations against his accusers, would encourage and be strengthened by that.

By the same token, Mr Schiff’s effort to reinvigorate the House investigation, despite Mr Mueller’s ongoing investigation, could look gratuitous to a public that has little interest in the Russian plot. That would be wrong, given the seriousness of Russia’s attack, and worrying, given the likelihood of a repeat. Yet it could happen, and in that case Mr Schiff would end up politicising the special counsel’s more high-powered investigation even more than it already has been. Mr Trump would waste no time in framing Mr Schiff and Mr Mueller as conspirators in a liberal vendetta.

He acknowledges some of these risks: “The president is going to fight oversight tooth and nail, which means we must pick and choose our fights.” He says he will focus his investigation on allegations surrounding Russian payments to Mr Trump’s company before he was elected. Neither the House nor Senate probes looked at this, though many believe it could help explain Mr Trump’s cravenness towards Vladimir Putin. Mr Schiff says the allegations may turn out “more compromising than any salacious videotape”.

He believes the special counsel has not looked at them either, but even if he has, he says there is little danger he will muddy the water between his probe and Mr Mueller’s. Congressional oversight, tarnished by House Republicans, is both important in itself and fundamentally different from the special counsel’s brief, he says. Mr Mueller has a mandate to investigate crimes. Having done so, he could choose not to release his findings. Congressional oversight, by contrast, is as much about bringing the truth to light as miscreants to book: “The public deserves an accounting.”

Mr Schiff’s eagerness to prioritise also suggests he has taken a lesson from his Republican tormentors. He is a veteran of one of the eight Republican investigations into Hillary Clinton’s alleged culpability for the deaths of American diplomatic staff in Benghazi in 2012. It was a bogus charge: she had no direct responsibility. Yet in the process of devoting hours of airtime and millions of dollars to it, the Republicans raised doubts about Mrs Clinton’s integrity which helped deny her the presidency. With so many real scandals to choose from, the Democrats need to focus not only on the most serious but also, as the Republicans did, on what seems most indicative of their opponent’s character. Mr Trump’s alleged malfeasance fits that bill.

You say subpoena

Sticking it to him in this way might placate Democratic activists who want to impeach the president, which the party’s leadership, including Mr Schiff, does not want: “There’s only one thing worse than putting the country through the wrenching experience of an impeachment, and that’s a failed impeachment”. It would also indicate that Mr Trump is better opposed with fact and reason, the grounds he cannot compete on, than fire and nonsense.

This is why Mr Schiff, calm and rigorous, looks like an effective opponent for Mr Trump. It is also why the president’s effort to tar him as “Sleazy Adam Schiff” fell flat. The only association with sin that clings to Mr Schiff, a marathon-running vegan, relates to the fact that his wife is called Eve.

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A new museum captures Austria’s ambivalence about its past

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MODERN AUSTRIA turned 100 on November 12th and, as a present, gave itself a history museum. Its first exhibition includes a towering wooden horse that sports the brown cap of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (SA). The Waldheim-Pferd, or Waldheim Horse, was first seen at demonstrations in 1986, when Kurt Waldheim ran for the country’s presidency, playing down his role in the Wehrmacht during the second world war and claiming he had never joined any Nazi organisation. His opponents joked that only his horse had been a member of the SA.

Waldheim won the election, but Austria was changed for ever. “It was the end of the era in which Austria only saw itself as a victim of Hitler’s aggression,” says Georg Hoffmann, a curator at the House of Austrian History, the new museum, which occupies a set of rooms in Vienna’s imperial Hofburg palace. “It was the first time Austria openly debated its co-responsibility for Nazi crimes.” Wehrmacht records are on display near the horse, which show that Waldheim had indeed been a member of the same outfit as his mount.

Austria may have changed in the Waldheim era, but not every Austrian changed with it. Views on the country’s past remained divided, which helps explain why it took 20 years for the idea of a national history museum to come to fruition. (This was just the most recent incarnation of the scheme: the first push for a museum began in 1946.) Austria’s Social Democrats secured the founding of the institution in 2016, while in coalition with the centre-right People’s Party. The latter, now in government with the far-right Freedom Party, honoured this commitment, albeit on a temporary basis. State funding is guaranteed only until the end of next year (though Austria’s parliament has suggested that it may stump up some cash beyond that).

In a sense, then, the House of Austrian History is its own best exhibit, and the most fitting 100th-birthday present the country could receive: a project almost as vexed as the story it tells, and as precarious as the statehood it commemorates has sometimes been.

The myth of victimhood

Like several other European countries, the Austrian Republic was born as the first world war ended, formed from the rump of the 600-year-old Habsburg empire that Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovenes had not claimed for their own nation-states. Most Austrians saw Austria as an aberration, cut off from its wheat in the east, its port on the Adriatic and the industry of Bohemia; the Allies denied their wish to join a “greater Germany”. 

These problems of national identity were compounded by severe economic difficulties, and were ultimately followed by the Anschluss of 1938, in which Austria’s own authoritarian government was overrun by Nazi Germany, to the jubilation of millions of its people. Despite the horrors that this greater Germany then inflicted on its neighbours and the world, the Allies in 1943 declared Austria the “first free country to fall victim” to the Nazis. Their hope was to stoke resistance to Hitler, but the revisionism also led to what the post-war Austrian left called the “victim myth”.

“Austria successfully defended this ‘victimhood narrative’ when dealing with the Allies after 1945,” says Anton Pelinka, a political scientist. Victim status enabled the country to differentiate itself from Germany—but it also made it easier for governments to allow former Nazis to take part in the new democracy. “That was the foundation of revelations like those about Waldheim years later,” says Mr Pelinka.

All Austrians were victims; all Austrians were Nazis: these competing simplifications are at the root of Austria’s ambivalence about its past. The museum acknowledges that tension frankly. What, for instance, to call the authoritarian era of Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt Schuschnigg from 1933 to 1938? The country’s left for years referred to it as Austro-Fascism, the right as the Corporate State. The museum displays these and other terms, and plumps for the “Dollfuss-Schuschnigg Dictatorship”, at least for now.

“We see ourselves as a forum for debate,” says Monika Sommer, the director. “We are quite comfortable with showing that there isn’t always one view on history.” She hopes that exhibits like the Waldheim-Pferd will prove to be “friction points” that galvanise discussion. There are bound to be controversies, she acknowledges. The museum’s aim is to provide a stage on which to air them, perhaps even to forge a new consensus.

As the House of Austrian History documents, the distortions go all the way back to the beginning. The museum shows how “the state nobody wanted”, as Hellmut Andics, a well-known writer, described the republic of 1918, deserved more esteem and, after the disgrace of Nazism and Austria’s post-war recovery, eventually got it. Some of the republic’s first laws made generous provision for the war-wounded, adumbrating modern Austria’s munificent welfare state. Parts of the constitution of 1920 were incorporated into the current version.

A recent preview at the museum was attended by members of Vienna’s Jewish community. One of them, Awi Blumenfeld, a teacher whose parents survived Auschwitz, enjoyed the Waldheim-Pferd, which he saw as a symbol of Austria’s divisions, and a reminder that lies are unsustainable. (The liberal political group that owns the horse has the right to reclaim it if it disagrees with the curators’ approach.) Mr Blumenfeld was sure the museum will secure long-term funding. After all, even the present right-wing government “understands that we need a national narrative that goes beyond Mozart.”

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