Dems find an unlikely attack dog on Russia

Dems find an unlikely attack dog on Russia
© Greg Nash

Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffFive takeaways from Mark Zuckerberg's media blitz House Intel votes to release report in Russia probe Top Intel Dem: Minority 'absolutely' plans to continue Russia witness interviews MORE isn’t going quiet any time soon — no matter what his Republican colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee might want.

The California Democrat has been a pervasive presence on cable news networks during the panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election. He has claimed “clear evidence” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and last week issued a Twitter screed calling President Trump “the worst president in modern history.”

Schiff’s rising profile hasn’t escaped the notice of the president.

“Sleazy Adam Schiff, the totally biased Congressman looking into ‘Russia,’ spends all of his time on television pushing the Dem loss excuse!” Trump tweeted over the summer.

A soft-spoken and polite former prosecutor, Schiff is in many ways an unlikely attack dog on Russia. In hearings and press appearances, he often eschews sound bites for dense statements drawing connections between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

But Schiff is no stranger to high-level Russia investigations. As a prosecutor in 1990, he convicted the first FBI agent indicted for espionage, Richard Miller, who was found guilty of passing secret documents to the Soviet Union for thousands of dollars in gold and cash.

Allies have praised Schiff’s calm, lawyerly approach, even as Republicans on the committee groan at his frequent TV appearances.

“I’m sure that even as their members go on television to criticize, they, like the president, would wish I wouldn’t be raising these issues publicly,” Schiff told The Hill in a recent interview.

“But I’ve made it clear to them that where they depart from the best interests of the investigation, we have to speak out about it.”

The House investigation into Russian interference, which began in January, has been wracked by political infighting.

Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesTop Intel Dem: Minority 'absolutely' plans to continue Russia witness interviews FEC probing Nunes for possible campaign violations Top Russia probe Republican: 'No intention' of calling Cambridge Analytica officials back MORE (R-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, stepped back from leading the investigation in April amid allegations that he was distorting intelligence information to shield the White House from scrutiny.

Committee Democrats have been aggravated by Nunes’s continued involvement in the investigation behind the scenes — and by the launch of a series of parallel investigations that Schiff says are a political ploy aimed at drawing fire away from the president.

Republicans, meanwhile, regularly accuse committee Democrats of dragging out witness interviews to score political points against the president. Many say it’s time to close the book on the probe entirely, claiming that the committee has seen no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Schiff, as the top Democrat on the panel, has only a limited ability to guide the direction of the investigation from the inside. But he’s having his say from the outside, using interviews and public statements to keep the pressure on.

“I don’t have the power of subpoena and I don’t have the power to set the schedule,” he said. “The only thing I can do is say, ‘If we are serious about getting to the truth, this is how we should do it.’

“Sometimes we win those fights, sometimes we lose those fights. All I can do is make the argument,” he continued. “Sometimes, depending on the nature of the issue, I can make the argument publicly — and that can be persuasive.”

But it is precisely this tactic that has earned him the annoyance of his Republican colleagues.

Schiff raised eyebrows in March when he told “Meet The Press Daily” that he had seen “more than circumstantial” evidence that associates of the president had colluded with the Kremlin to swing the election to the Trump — a statement that came long before the committee was prepared to issue its final report.

The notion that the remarks were prejudicial or premature reflects “an interesting double standard,” Schiff said. 

“It’s OK to speak about the investigation if you speak in a way that reflects favorably on the administration, but not if you don’t,” he said, noting that Republicans on the committee at the time were publicly stating that there was no evidence of collusion.

“As the White House turns up the temperature, and Steve Bannon turns up the temperature, on trying to shut down the investigation, saying the investigation isn’t producing any information of value — I think it’s important to push back,” he said, referring to the former White House chief strategist who has since returned to the helm of Breitbart News.

The friction on the panel has at times spilled into public view.

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) told reporters over the summer that a remark Schiff made criticizing committee member Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyDem senator introduces bill to publicize Trump officials' flying Gowdy: Trump's lawyers doing 'disservice' by framing Mueller probe around collusion House Oversight chairman requests details on Zinke's 9K door MORE (R-S.C.) was “horseshit.” Schiff had said that Gowdy acted as a “second attorney” for Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, during the senior White House adviser’s interview before the panel in July.

The recently released transcript of the committee’s interview with former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page also revealed a number of contentious exchanges between Schiff and committee Republicans. Rep. Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayCongress votes to expand deficit — and many in GOP are unhappy Overnight Cybersecurity: House Intel votes to release Russia report | House lawmakers demand Zuckerberg testify | Senators unveil updated election cyber bill House Intel votes to release report in Russia probe MORE (R-Texas), who is leading the investigation in Nunes’s place, accused Schiff of saying “in a kind of off-handed, derogatory way that we had not informed you that [Page] had originally pled the Fifth.”

Conaway, who is notoriously closed-lipped about the investigation, has privately urged members to stop talking about the probe on TV.

Schiff shrugs aside the notion that his frequent public appearances have done any harm to the investigation.

“I think the challenges we face on the committee is the committee’s willingness to engage in diversions from our central focus on the Russia investigation,” he said, citing the Nunes imbroglio in April and a recently announced investigation into the 2010 sale of a Toronto-based uranium company with U.S. holdings to a Russian firm.

The investigation is playing out against a backdrop of the 2018 midterm elections, where Democrats are hoping to make major gains.

Schiff had toyed with running for the Senate next year if Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTop Senate Dems demand report from Trump on UK nerve agent attack Feinstein, Harris call for probe of ICE after employee resigns Jeh Johnson: Media focused on 'Access Hollywood' tape instead of Russian meddling ahead of election MORE (D-Calif.) retired, but she announced in October that she would run for a fifth term.

For now, Schiff says his priority is ensuring that Democrats retake the House — an outcome that would likely make him Intelligence chairman and allow him to run the Russia investigation as he sees fit.

At a time when Democrats have grappled over how heavily to campaign on the evidence of collusion, Schiff said the key to winning the midterms would be giving people a “powerful and positive economic reason to vote for Democrats.”

“I think when my colleagues thought I might be running for the Senate they said, ‘Well that’s why he’s doing media.’ Now that I’m not running for the Senate, they’ve sort of lost that argument,” he said. “I’m doing the same things I’ve always done.” 

“And I think no one would like me to refrain from talking to you more than the president.”