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.