Table Talk | Fall 2020 Issue

Adam Schiff: Political Warrior

Congressman Adam Schiff has watched with horror as Donald Trump assaults democratic norms. Schiff speaks with Blueprint.

By Jim Newton

ADAM SCHIFF WAS ELECTED to the United States Congress in 2000, when he defeated Jim Rogan, a Republican incumbent whose support for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton left him vulnerable to a challenge from a Democrat. Twenty years later, Schiff took the lead role in the impeachment of President Donald Trump, a cause that did nothing to diminish his standing in his heavily Democratic, Southern California district. It also made him a national figure, both beloved and polarizing. Throughout the impeachment proceedings, Trump taunted and belittled him.

The impeachment was soon followed by a global pandemic, an economic col- lapse and a fierce national debate over racial justice, particularly in policing. The juxtaposition of those three crises, all cresting in Trump’s fourth year as president, have raised grave questions about political division and the future of the country.

Schiff, a longtime legislator, former federal prosecutor and graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, discussed these and other issues with Blueprint editor-in-chief Jim Newton during a Zoom call this summer.

The Schiff-Newton conversation

Blueprint: Let’s start with division. Every time someone tells me the country has never been more divided, I flash to the Civil War and realize it’s not really true. But this does feel like an extraordinary time. … I’m curious, from your perspective, how critical is this moment, and how does it stack up historically.

Adam Schiff: It’s interesting that you make that comparison to the Civil War. I draw the same analogies when people either say, “We’ve never been more divided,” or “We’ve never been through a more difficult time.” I point out that we’ve been through two world wars, the Korean War, the Great Depression. …

The analogy that I more often draw is between now and Vietnam. We were bitterly divided as a nation during Vietnam. We were losing tens of thousands of Americans in the conflict. There were … shootings on a college campus. Those were very traumatic times also. And we survived them. We will survive … this period of great consternation and division in this country. I do derive some solace from the fact that we have overcome more difficult divisions in the past. … Our country, like most, has its cycles of great unity and its cycles of great division. We are in a very difficult, wrenching time right now. …

Much of this predates Donald Trump. It was owing really to two different revolu- tions going on simultaneously — a revolution in the economy, every bit as significant as the industrial revolution, in how the workplace is changing, with automation and globalization, meaning that millions of people at home and abroad were losing their jobs through no fault of their own, and much of the middle class was feeling the ground slip away beneath its feet. … That was also coupled with an information revolution no less significant than the invention of the printing press, which we had centuries to get used to, [while] this we’ve only had a matter of a few years. It will take us real time to acclimate to an environment where fear and lies travel far faster than truth or love, and in which the algorithms amplify our divisions.

That predated Donald Trump, but like the capable arsonist that he is, he has poured fuel on the fire of our divisions and made them far worse. This too shall pass, but not without a lot of damage in the meantime.

BP: As I watch his rallies, I’m struck by the fact that, while he is undoubtedly a source of great division, President Trump is a magnet as well as a perpetrator. I’m thinking about the moment where someone in the crowd in Phoenix shout- ed out “Kung Flu.” When he leaves office, does this atmosphere leave with him.

AS: I remember when, a few weeks into his presidency, it became clear what kind of a president he was going to be. I began talking about how the apparent and enormous flaws in his character were infecting the whole of government. You were seeing it influence different agencies, to their detriment.

But it wasn’t until I watched the rally he did after Dr. Ford testified about her sexual assault, where he was mocking her and the crowd was just thrilled, laughing at her, that I realized something. [In 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Brett Kavanaugh, then a Trump nominee to the Supreme Court, had sexually assaulted her when both were in high school.] I remember thinking that she had testified that the hardest thing for her was the idea that she would be mocked, and here she was, being mocked. I thought to myself: OK, the infection has gone well beyond the government. The president has now infected the whole country. …

These were pre-existing veins of ugliness that he played on, and so it’s not as if that sentiment wasn’t out there in the country to be tapped. It was. And for that reason, when he leaves, it will not leave with him. But the person at the top really does have a dramatic influence on the tone of the country, and much of that tone has changed to reflect the same indecency that we see from him.

So, when he goes and we have a new president who has a sense of decency, I think that will go a long way toward healing the country, but I do think he has established a model now that politically was very successful, that others will emulate, and so someone will, for the foreseeable future, try to run in the Donald Trump lane, which means fuel division, play on issues of race and demagogue, propagate deliberate falsehoods and attack the media or any other institution that tries to hold him accountable.

There will be a long tail, sadly. It will be made longer if the president loses and decides to maintain his disruptive conduct as a private citizen. If he loses, he will be the same aggrieved human being that he is now…

BP: It goes without saying, really…

AS: But he will carry that grief to the four corners of the planet. So, I think that the size of his repudiation will also determine how long it will take us to recover.

BP: You probably are the best person to consider the threat of foreign interference to the upcoming election. At the same time, the president seems to be very studiously laying the groundwork for the idea that mail-in ballots or the virus may cast some doubt on the results. Does that suggest that both sides are in a position to be reluctant to accept the results of this election?

AS: That would be terribly unhealthy for our democracy, but I think you’re absolutely right. He’s already attempting to discredit the votes of millions and millions of Americans, millions who under the best of circumstances vote by absentee — like himself, the vice president and many others — but millions more who will, of necessity, be voting by absentee because it will not be safe to go out and vote.

Because of the president’s tragic handling of this pandemic, we may not have a second wave in the fall because the first wave may not have ended. But either way, whether it’s the second wave or a prolonged first wave, the pandemic will be with us in the fall, and it will be very important that people can vote safely and not have to risk their health to do it.

What he is doing is so singularly destructive of our democracy and of the franchise, but it also is essentially an open invitation for foreign mischief. In the same way that the president falsely claimed in 2016 that millions of undocumented people voted in the election — if he’s going to make such a huge lie about an election he won, at least in the Electoral College, you can imagine what he will do if and when he loses. And if he’s able to persuade a sufficient number of Americans between now and then that they cannot rely on the results and the election is close, it could be a completely chaotic post-election period.

The Russians have a couple objects. They like to pick the candidate who best suits Russian interests, which in 2016 was Donald Trump, and in 2020 my guess will be Donald Trump again. He’s been the gift that wouldn’t stop giving in terms of advancing Russian objectives around the world. But their other objective is to cause Americans to question their own democracy and undermine our own democratic institutions. What better way than to amplify the president’s falsehoods about absentee voting…?

In Congress, we’re taking steps to try to make sure that people can safely vote…, providing funding for postage for ballots, requiring paper trails for electronic technology, providing for early voting so that polling places won’t be overcrowded, taking steps to make sure that they’re not disenfranchising people by closing polling stations in urban centers. [Note: Shortly before this interview, voters in Kentucky were temporarily prohibited from casting ballots because their polling place shut down with scores of people still waiting in line, a spectacle that has been revisited in other states since then.] You know, that specter of people banging on the windows, trying to be let in to vote…

BP: It was horrifying…

AS: It reverberated all around the world, and it just kills me to see, in addition to everything else, how the rest of the world now views the health, or ill health, of American democracy. This will provide, tragically, fertile ground for our adversaries to stoke uncertainty about the election. Ultimately, the best remedy is making sure that every American registers to vote and turns out to vote so that this is not a close result. If it’s an overwhelming result, then there’s no opportunity for either the president or foreign powers to make mischief.

BP: It’s hard for me to imagine, given the results last time and history since, any result this fall that ends with Donald Trump winning the popular vote. It is possible, though, to look at the map and imagine a result not so different from last time, where he loses the popular vote but squeaks out victories in a few battleground states, enough to win the Electoral College. That might put us in the realm of wondering about whether foreign interference had tipped the result. Is that something you worry about?

AS: You cannot ignore the possibility. After all, in 2016, Donald Trump won the Electoral College by winning about 70,000 votes in a small number of states…

BP: It was incredibly close.
AS: And, you know, the social media component of the Russian campaign reached millions, hundreds of millions of people. There’s no way you can definitively say that it decided or didn’t decide the result.

The other thing, of course, is that their hacking and dumping operation gave the president something he could talk about, and did, over a hundred times on the campaign trail.

BP: And maybe that’s worth 100,000 votes?

AS: One of the most precious things candidates have is their time, and the fact that Donald Trump spent so much of his time talking about the Russian-hacked documents indicates that he thought they could be determinative. … Could it happen again? Absolutely, it could happen again.

I have to say: I’m not just worried about foreign mischief but also domestic mischief. We see disturbing signs that domestic parties may adopt part of the Russian playbook and engage in some of the same false-flag operations that the Russians did. Indeed, in the midterm elections, there was an effort to do a test run in the Alabama primary, in which a false-flag operation could be mounted to suggest that Roy Moore would turn the state into a dry state. So I worry about domestic bad actors utilizing the same tactics that the Russians did.

I’m concerned about both domestic and foreign actors employing new technologies, like Deepfake, where you can produce completely realistic yet utterly fraudulent video or audio. If you release something like that of Joe Biden saying something he never said, and yet it being his person and his voice and indistinguishable from the real thing except in terms of computer AI [Artificial Intelligence], then you could have an election-altering event that way.

BP: And in the time it takes for the truth to catch up with that lie, a lot of votes could have been swung.

AS: Yes, we had an open hearing on Deepfake in the Intelligence Committee last year…, and I asked one of the experts about what is known as a Cheapfake, in this case a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi that showed her giving a speech at the Center for American Progress, but they doctored it by slowing it down to alter the timber of her voice and made it look like she was drunk. I asked the expert: If 10 million people saw that video, how many of the 10 million could you reasonably predict could find out that it had been doctored? And the expert’s answer was: You’d be lucky if even 1 or 2 million ultimately learned that it had been doctored, and even among that 1 or 2 million … the lingering negative impression may never be able to be erased.

To give you an example, in 2016, they were trying to tell a false narrative about Hillary Clinton being in failing health. Had they used Cheapfakes of Hillary Clinton slurring her speech or other things like it, even if people were told that it was doctored, they’d still kind of wonder where they got that impression.

BP: One of the corrosive things that many people have experienced in this period is the disappearance of norms — that presidents tell the truth, that media are objective, that sacrifice is rewarded or admired. This feels like a one-way ratchet — that once you’ve lost a norm, it’s very hard to go back and recapture it. Is there any way to get back to a certain set of expectations, or have we lost them forever? To take one example: that people in public life are expected to tell the truth and that they will suffer consequences if they are caught lying. Have we lost that as a value, or is there a way to reclaim it?

AS: I hope that we are not past that, because I have observed many times over the last three years that there is nothing more corrosive to a democracy than the idea that there is no truth, or that the truth doesn’t matter anymore, or that we’re entitled to our own alternate facts, or, as [Rudy] Giuliani says, “Truth isn’t truth.”

I think of all the destructive things that Donald Trump has done, this belongs very near the top of the list: these incessant attacks on the press being an enemy of the people, that any reporting that is critical of the ad- ministration is therefore “fake” and can’t be believed, and the audacious willingness to tell known falsehoods every single day. …

I have to hope and pray that when this scourge passes, that the Republican Party reclaims its ideology and once again attaches itself to fact, even if we can disagree about what should be done with those facts.

BP: Like many people, I oscillate between wondering whether he has a kind of feral genius for division, whether he’s got a gut instinct, or whether he’s more calculating. I wonder if you have any insight into that.

AS: [Some time ago], the question occurred to a lot of us…: Does he just willfully lie all the time, or does he not know the difference between fact and fiction? I don’t know which is more dangerous. I think maybe the answer is that throughout his life, he has come to the conclusion, based on the success of this as a strategy, that he can say whatever the hell he wants to say, and he can make it his own truth — as long as he says it with enough conviction, as long as he says it clearly enough and with enough repetition, then he can make it the fact. And I think that he feels that others who don’t get that are just fools and losers.

I’ll go beyond that to say — and I think this may explain some of his exasperation with the coverage that he gets in the media — I think he thinks everyone else operates by the same playbook, in the same way that people of low morals often assume that everyone else has the same lack of morals. The president believes that everyone acts the same way he does. God help us if that were true.

I do think he believes that it doesn’t matter what’s true or not true. What matters is what you can persuade people of. He’s been very successful. He became president of the United States. He got through a lot of his business life — not very successfully, but successfully enough. It has worked for him.

BP: What needs to be done to rebuild this country and our social community in a way that feels constructive? Are there things that we should be doing as a society to get back on our feet again?

AS: There are. I guess I would start with things that we can do in government. I think we’re going to need our own package of post-Watergate reforms. This is something that I’ve been working on for months…: things to expedite court review of congressional subpoenas, things to discourage the abuse of the pardon power, things to strengthen the independence of the Justice Department, a whole host of making [into] law norms that we thought could not be violated.

So I think there’s a government reaction, which I believe will enjoy bi- partisan support. Republicans won’t support it now because the president would find it threatening, and he would tweet about them, and God forbid you should be on the receiving end of a negative tweet. But I think that when Trump is gone, my colleagues in the GOP will see the need to strengthen and protect our institutions against the recurrence of that kind of demagogue.

BP: Can I ask you to pause on that for a moment? I’m thinking about the aftermath of Watergate or Vietnam — the War Powers Act, for instance, as an attempt to check a president who went beyond norms — some of which resulted in really constructive change, good change in law, and some of which have felt in retrospect like overreactions to a particular president. … How do you guard against that? How do you not over-correct for this president?

AS: Well, I think we have to be careful in the reforms we propose that they don’t do harm, that they don’t have unintended consequences. Some things will have real constitutional limitations.

For example, how do you curb the abuse of the pardon power? This president may or may not abuse the pardon power, but in a way he has already abused it by dangling pardons …

I introduced a bill, for example, that if a president pardons someone in an investigation in which they are a witness, subject or target, then the investigative files would be provided to Congress to determine whether it was an act of obstruction. I introduced that when I was concerned about Michael Cohen. At that time, the president still hoped to keep [Cohen] within his orbit, but I knew that the president would not want the Cohen files provided to Congress, so it might deter the abuse of that power. We’ll need to think about how we can do things like this, which don’t deter the appropriate use of the pardon but do discourage its abuse.

Similarly, we don’t want the president not to be able to influence the broad direction of the Justice Department — the prioritization of certain types of cases — but we don’t want the president intervening in certain individual cases in which he’s implicated.

So we’ll need to be careful about how we write these things.

But, going to the broader question: What do we do as a society? I really think a lot of it will require trying to learn again how to be good consumers of information in this new world. When I was in college, I remember rushing home to my dormitory to watch Walter Cronkite’s last broadcast. That was a time when there was a broad category of accepted fact, and we learned it on three networks. Of course, everybody had their opinion about what those facts should lead us to do…, but at least we believed in facts, and we knew where to find them.

Now, it’s kind of a Brave New World out there. You have great, import- ant sources of journalism and investigative journalism, and then you have whole networks or platforms, with people who are admitted into the White House press corps, and ask questions like: Is Chinese food racist? That’s not the same type of journalism. That’s propaganda.

I don’t know whether this is a question of how we teach civics, or whether we need to start teaching courses in journalism, not for people who want to become journalists but for people who want to consume good information. We’re going to need to learn again how to discern reliable sources of information and fact from fiction.

I think it’s going to be not only important that we have national leadership in the Oval Office but also that we have local leadership at every level. We need a return to basic decency. We need to remember who we are as a people — a fundamentally good, kind, generous people. We have to remember what the country stands for in terms of our ideals, our democratic ideals.

Of all the things in the Bolton book [former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s memoir, The Room Where It Happened] that I found disturbing, and there was a lot for me to find disturbing…

BP: I’ll bet there was…

AS: … was the acknowledgement that in private conversations with Chinese President Xi, Donald Trump was not only telling him that it was appropriate to put a million or more Chinese citizens, Uighurs, in concentration camps, but that it was the right thing to do. It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental betrayal of everything our country stands for.

We need to remind the rest of the world what America stands for. More importantly, we need to remind ourselves what we stand for.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author, teacher and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of four critically acclaimed books of biography and history, including "Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown." He teaches in Communication Studies and Public Policy at UCLA.

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