CAPITOL HILL - Adam Schiff, the erudite and dogged chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is prosecuting the case of his life on Capitol Hill this fall.
The 59-year old former federal attorney and Harvard Law graduate is leading the impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives and has incurred the wrath of U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter and television.
The two men have never had a civil relationship. Trump in the past has belittled Schiff as a “pencil neck” and “Liddle Schiff,” while Schiff frequently compared Trump to a mob boss.
Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced last week the launching of an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s high-handed dealings with Ukraine’s president and put Schiff in charge of the overall investigation, Trump has gone on a rampage in attacking Schiff.
Trump used a joint appearance with the Finnish leader at the White House Wednesday to denounce Schiff as a “low life” and a “shifty, dishonest guy” and demanded that he resign. Schiff appears unfazed by the presidential attacks, and warned Trump that the Democrats would be turning up the heat.
First Nadler, now Schiff
For months, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler was the face of Democrats’ investigations into a wide range of concerns about Trump’s conduct in office and during the 2016 campaign. But that all changed following allegations that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine as leverage in pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to assist him in digging up political dirt on former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter to undermine Biden’s bid to challenge Trump in the 2020 election.
Trump has offered various explanations for his actions, including the claim he was withholding aid from Ukraine because other European countries weren't contributing their share. He tweeted on September 30: "Very simple! I was looking for Corruption and also why Germany, France and others in the European Union don’t do more for Ukraine. Why is it always the USA that does so much and puts up so much money for Ukraine and other countries? By the way, the Bidens were corrupt!"
The disclosure that Trump was trying to enlist foreign assistance in his re-election campaign abruptly shifted responsibility for the impeachment probe from the Judiciary Committee to the Intelligence Committee, where Schiff has control over investigations into national security and intelligence matters. He has served in that role since Democrats assumed the majority of the U.S. House of Representatives in January. What’s more, Schiff has proved to be far more media savvy and telegenic than Nadler, which has enabled him to become the face of the impeachment inquiry.
On Wednesday, Schiff and the House Democrats vowed to subpoena the White House by week’s end if administration officials refused to turn over documents related to the president’s July 25 call to the Ukrainian president. Schiff warned Trump not to ignore his committee’s attempts to obtain information for the investigation or try to tie up the investigation in court.
“We are concerned that the White House will attempt to stonewall our investigation much as they have stonewalled other committees in the past,” Schiff said. “We’re not fooling around here, though.”
Schiff often compares the president’s actions to that of a mob boss who uses intimidation to extract money and promises. His parody mocking the president’s call with the Ukrainian president at the opening of a key congressional hearing last week struck many as out of step with the seriousness of the investigation. Trump quickly seized on Schiff’s summary as yet another example of so-called “fake news.”
“He made it up,” Trump said in a press conference Wednesday. “He went up to a microphone and in front of the American people and in Congress. He went out and he gave a whole presentation of words that the president of the United States never said. It has to be a criminal act. It has to be. And he should resign.”
It was a rare misstep for Schiff, a highly respected veteran House member from California, said Steven Billet, director of the Legislative Affairs program at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.
“It was a horrible mistake in my estimation. I would not have advised him to do that,” Billet told VOA. “This is not something where people appreciate cleverness. I think they appreciate a straightforward reading of the issues and a straightforward presentation of what it is they’re all about.”
Trump called for Schiff’s resignation via tweet Thursday morning.
Schiff faces an intense media environment that simply did not exist during previous impeachment inquiries. Billet notes that House Republicans did not conduct an investigation of similar scope for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998. But he said Schiff shares many qualities with Peter Rodino, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during the process that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Billet said Schiff is “very, very methodical, straightforward, no-nonsense, really hardworking.” Early in his career, the California congressman prosecuted a high-profile case involving a former FBI agent accused of passing secrets to the Soviet Union. Schiff’s approach as a prosecutor was on display earlier this week as he pushed back against Trump’s threats to unmask and retaliate against the whistleblower.
“The president wants to make this all about the whistleblower, and suggest people that come forward with evidence of his wrongdoing are somehow treasonous and should be treated as traitors and spies. This is a blatant effort to intimidate witnesses. It’s an incitement to violence,” Schiff said.
Trump and his congressional Republican allies falsely accused Schiff of orchestrating a conspiracy following New York Times reports that the whistleblower approached the House Intelligence Committee with information about the allegations after filing the report with the inspector general. Trump charged without proof that Schiff had helped the whistleblower prepare his complaint against the president.
“Like other whistleblowers have done before and since under Republican and Democratic-controlled committees, the whistleblower contacted the committee for guidance on how to report possible wrongdoing within the jurisdiction of the intelligence community,” Patrick Boland, a spokesperson for Schiff, said in a statement.
It is the latest, but certainly not the last, confrontation between Trump and Schiff — two men with contrasting temperaments whose conflict will only increase given House Democrats’ accelerated timeline for an impeachment investigation. Democrats aim to finish the investigation that will likely end in a House floor vote on impeachment by the end of the year.
Watergate investigators had eight months to prepare their case against Nixon. Schiff and House Democrats want to wrap up the Trump impeachment probe within the next two months. It’s a task Billet said the chairman is up to handling.
“He brings a sense of dignity and civility to the work that he does in the committee,” Billet said.