A clinical and focused approach is called for in the face of Trump’s theatrics and distraction.
President Trump and House Republicans are trying to cast the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff of California, as the lead villain in a partisan impeachment reality show. The president has road-tested some nicknames, called for Mr. Schiff’s resignation and accused him of treason, and is now trying to spin out a new conspiracy theory, suggesting that Mr. Schiff “probably helped write” the whistle-blower complaint. House Republicans have indicated that they intend to force a vote to condemn Mr. Schiff when they return from recess.
But in all the ways that matter for this particular moment, Mr. Schiff seems to be coming off as the opposite of a slick political operator bent on betraying the country.
For starters, he was thrust into this role largely by happenstance. Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, has been pursuing an impeachment investigation for some time. But his efforts have largely fallen flat with both the public and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
News of a whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine changed all of that. The drama that ensued put Mr. Schiff in the driver’s seat — not because the call specifically addressed intelligence matters, but because the whistle-blower just happened to work in the intelligence community. A whistle-blower from the State Department with access to similar witnesses and facts could just as easily have submitted the complaint to a different committee.Mr. Schiff is a stickler for process. When the whistle-blower approached him and his staff, they did precisely the right thing: They directed the whistle-blower to obtain legal counsel and file the complaint through the appropriate channels laid out in the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act.
Mr. Schiff went public only after receiving a letter from the intelligence community inspector general indicating the acting director of national intelligence had not followed process requirements outlined in the law. The president can concoct all the conspiracy theories he wants, and Lindsey Graham and others may pick up the tune, but Mr. Schiff played it by the book.
Speaker Pelosi tagged Mr. Schiff as the lead on gathering facts on the Ukraine issue in anticipation of an impeachment vote. For now, Mr. Nadler has stepped into the background — eventually, any articles of impeachment would go through his committee first. But Mr. Schiff is quarterbacking speedy efforts of his own staff and also two other committees, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform, that Ms. Pelosi has directed to assist in the effort.
Mr. Schiff is setting the tone and strategy of the inquiry, quickly setting up depositions of key witnesses and warning the administration that obstruction and delay could form the basis for a distinct article of impeachment similar to one approved by the Judiciary Committee against Richard Nixon in 1974.
In short, Mr. Schiff is the man of the moment — and, without knowing it, he has been preparing for it for the past two years. As chairman, he followed Devin Nunes of California, whose handling of the committee’s Russia investigation was specious and included cloak-and-dagger visits to the White House.
Mr. Schiff was vocal about his desire to tell the American people, in an open and public way, exactly what happened in the 2016 election. He also signaled he would seek to address wider issues, like the intersection of the president’s foreign policies and the Trump family’s global financial interests. Mr. Schiff has become the Democrats’ go-to articulator of the importance of core American values like the rule of law, election integrity, respect for human rights and anti-corruption — as well as broader foreign policy challenges like the rise of authoritarianism around the world.
But understand this: The role of the head of the House Intelligence Committee is not normally so high-profile. Traditionally, the chairman focuses on more mundane agency oversight topics — and does so not in front of TV cameras but in closed-door settings.
There is also an element of personality and style. Before the 2016 election, Mr. Schiff was a well-respected but relatively obscure member of Congress. In a 2018 California Sunday Magazine profile, he was described this way: “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.”
He has been called solid, reasonable and mild-mannered. Sometimes too much so. Even awkward at times. Even now, his Democratic colleagues in the House view him as the prosecutor he once was — not a political operator clawing his way to ever-greater heights of power. But for purposes of the investigation, clinical and focused is what is called for in the face of Mr. Trump’s theatrics and distraction.
But Mr. Schiff has also shown that his patience has its limits and that he can be a very effective communicator. His characterization of President Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky as a “classic organized crime shakedown” is easy for people to understand. His lengthier, more impassioned remarks — like his defense of his view that the Mueller report did not absolve the president of wrongdoing, after Mr. Trump and committee Republicans called for his resignation — showed a backbone that left Republicans quieted.
Mr. Schiff’s status as a credible, effective communicator who can speak to Americans in ways that ring true may be the most important contribution he can make over the next few weeks and months.
It is becoming clearer every hour that the impeachment inquiry is not over whether Mr. Trump pressed a foreign power to investigate a political rival. He admitted to that conduct, released the call memo and even doubled down on camera on Thursday, saying of the Ukrainians, “If they were honest about it, they would start a major investigation into the Bidens” and “China should start an investigation into the Bidens.”
This is not a disagreement about facts or process. It is about whether what Mr. Trump is doing is improper and impeachable. The ultimate outcome of this process could depend on Democrats’ ability to draw a straight line between the president’s actions and the most profound concerns of the authors of the Constitution about the abuse of executive power.
This type of fight has always been Mr. Schiff’s strong suit.
A whistleblower complaint that has prompted a standoff between the U.S. intelligence community and Democrats in Congress involves President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, a person familiar with the matter said.
It couldn’t be determined which foreign leader the complaint says Mr. Trump engaged in a conversation with.
The House Intelligence Committee has been gripped in an unusual legal battle with the acting director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, over the complaint. The intelligence community’s inspector general has deemed the complaint a matter of urgent concern, according to the Democratic chairman of the committee, Adam Schiff.
Mr. Trump disputed that he had said anything inappropriate in a call with a foreign leader.
“Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!” he tweeted on Thursday. “Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially “heavily populated” call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”
The White House declined to comment on the whistleblower complaint on Thursday. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The substance of the complaint was previously reported by the Washington Post.
Mr. Schiff issued a subpoena last week to Mr. Maguire regarding the complaint while suggesting the issues divulged by the complainant were being withheld to protect Mr. Trump or other administration officials.
Mr. Maguire initially appeared to rebuff the subpoena but Mr. Schiff said late Wednesday he had agreed to testify in an open hearing next week.
The inspector general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Michael Atkinson, a Trump appointee, met Thursday morning with the committee in a closed session.
Mr. Atkinson’s urgency in dealing with the whistleblower complaint, which his office received on Aug. 12, was undercut by a determination by the office’s general counsel that the complaint concerned conduct by someone outside the intelligence community, and as a result didn’t rise to the level of an “urgent concern” that by law would require the complaint be transmitted to Congress.
But Mr. Atkinson “determined that this complaint is both credible and urgent, and that it should be transmitted to Congress under the clear letter of the law,” Mr. Schiff said Wednesday. “The committee places the highest importance on the protection of whistleblowers and their complaints to Congress.”
Mr. Trump had a number of conversations with foreign leaders in the weeks leading up to the filing of the whistleblower complaint, including a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 31.
Mr. Trump also received letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the summer and has held meetings with the leaders of Pakistan, Qatar and the Netherlands.
Mr. Trump traveled to Japan in June for the Group of 20 summit, where he met with world leaders including Mr. Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. During the trip he had an impromptu meeting with Mr. Kim at the border between North Korea and South Korea.
—Rebecca Ballhaus contributed to this article.
Write to Dustin Volz at email@example.com
“What we are going to have to decide as a caucus is: What is the best thing for the country?” Representative Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Is the best thing for the country to
- take up an impeachment proceeding because to do otherwise sends a message that this conduct is somehow compatible with office? Or is it in the best interest of the country
- not to take up an impeachment that we know will not be successful in the Senate?”
.. And even as the president and his allies trumpeted their vindication — “I have never been happier or more content,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday morning — they also lashed out at their perceived enemies.
“The Trump Haters and Angry Democrats who wrote the Mueller Report were devastated by the No Collusion finding!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, less than two hours after wishing the country a happy Easter. “Nothing but a total ‘hit job’ which should never have been allowed to start in the first place!”
They also singled out the testimony of certain aides who testified before Mr. Mueller’s team and conservative lawmakers who criticized Mr. Trump’s behavior as outlined in the report.
On Saturday night, Mr. Trump, ostensibly in response to a scathing statement from Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, shared a video mocking Mr. Romney’s unsuccessful presidential run in 2012.
Mr. Giuliani added to the criticism of the Utah senator, calling Mr. Romney a “hypocrite” for his statement. Mr. Romney had said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection” from administration officials, “including the president.”
President Trump directed his chief of staff in 2017 to award Jared Kushner a top-secret security clearance, overruling career officials who deemed the senior adviser and presidential son-in-law unworthy of eligibility access to that level of classified information, both the New York Times and The Washington Post reported on Thursday.
The reaction has been swift and fierce, especially from Democrats on Capitol Hill. House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who had already requested security clearance-related information from the White House, called for “full compliance with its requests as soon as possible, or it may become necessary to consider alternative means to compel compliance.” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote: “There is no nepotism exception for background investigations.”
In fact, there is. It’s part of a huge “exception” for granting security clearances: the whim of the person in the Oval Office... Legitimate questions remain about Kushner’s suitability for a senior position in the White House given his reported attempt to establish a secret back-channel with Russia during the transition — and to do it with Russian embassy communication equipment rather than anything under U.S. government control or knowledge.
.. But now, there are numerous legitimate questions for Congress to pursue. Why couldn’t Kushner get favorable approval through a system that millions of others have gone through? Does he have specific counterintelligence vulnerabilities for foreign manipulation? Did the president actually overrule career advice given to him — and, if so, why? Demanding information with subpoenas or with power-of-the-purse tactics about the president’s decision-making — not his inherent underlying authority — is how oversight should work in this case.
.. If sensitive information is central, as seems the case on this issue, some of this may need to be done in closed session. Congress might give the lead to the House Select Committee for Intelligence, which has a better ability to handle classified testimony and documents than the House Oversight Committee. Avoiding political theater is especially important with privacy-protected information.
In the past, public pressure resulting from congressional oversight and/or the media’s investigative reporting has prompted administrations to fire or force the resignation of irresponsible officials. It’s been less common for scandals to drive such responses from this administration, but keep in mind that Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, found himself without a job amid public outcry.