He is a soft-spoken moderate who has emerged as the unlikely face of resistance to President Trump — and he could become a bona fide threat to The Donald’s presidency as the probe into Russia’s interference in the election explodes.
California’s Adam Schiff is meticulous and detail-oriented. He’s not the type of firebrand partisan attack dog likely to storm the doors of the White House in full partisan hue and cry, or to engage in shouting matches with Republicans on national television.
But the fast-moving congressional investigation that he helps lead has catapulted Schiff, a Los Angeles Democrat, into a national role that few might have imagined — although those who know him best say his skills make him unusually qualified to handle the job.
“I’m not surprised that he reached this level of prominence,” said former congressman Steve Israel, who called Schiff his best friend. “He’s determined, but he doesn’t overplay his hand.”
“He’s careful and judicious and it serves him admirably,” former California congressman Mel Levine added.
Schiff’s role has exploded as the House investigation that he helps lead into Russian involvement in the presidential election has taken a number of bizarre twists.
His Republican colleague, Devin Nunes, tossed a grenade into the already explosive probe when he met with White House staffers to gather information — then briefed Trump. He refused to reveal the information to Schiff or to other colleagues on the committee.
That infuriated the usually calm Schiff and prompted him to call on Nunes to step down from the investigation, a call Nunes has rebuffed.
Schiff admitted being upset by the collapse of his relationship with Nunes, a fellow Californian with whom he worked well in the past.
“The breakdown with the chairman’s trip to the White House was deeply unfortunate,” Schiff told the Forward in a March 29 interview, stating that he looks forward to “getting the committee back on track” while insisting this can happen only if Nunes recuses himself from the investigation because of what Schiff views as a clear conflict of interest.
A compromise with committee Republicans about Nunes’s role does not seem to be in the cards as of now.
“I don’t know what that would look like,” Schiff said, though he stressed his willingness to “work with whoever I need to get this investigation done.”
Another twist came March 30, when The New York Times identified two staffers who met with Nunes as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Jewish employee at the White House National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a White House lawyer.
Both men have ties to short-lived National Security Agency director Michael Flynn, who was ousted amid reports of improper ties to Russia.
Flynn is now reportedly considering testifying before Congress if he is granted immunity. If those reports prove true, it move is likely to again put Schiff squarely in the national spotlight, especially if Flynn has damaging information about Trump or his close associates.
Schiff on March 31 called Flynn’s reported request for immunity a “grave and momentous step.”
Schiff, 56, a Harvard-educated lawyer, began his career as a prosecutor at the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s Office. He entered politics in 1996 as a member of the California state Senate and ran for Congress for the first time in 2000, winning his district’s congressional seat in what was at the time the most expensive House race in U.S. history.
Levine was among those helping Schiff in his first foray into national politics. “I thought he was unusually talented and a superb legislator,” Levine said. After his first re-election bid, Schiff no longer needed help and he has since handily won elections without needing to spend much money.
It is difficult to pigeonhole Schiff’s politics. In his early years he supported President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, and throughout his career he has focused efforts on trying to reach out across the aisle to work with Republicans on issues of national security and campaign finance reform. Schiff’s newly found position as Trump’s chief congressional foe does not necessarily represent a shift from his centrist views, said Levine. “He calls things as he sees them,” he said. “Like a good lawyer, he follows the facts. He is pragmatic and lawyerly.”
Schiff’s primary interest in Congress has been on intelligence and national security. As a freshman, he set up with Steve Israel the Democratic working group on national security. He later served on the House subcommittee in charge of funding U.S. foreign aid, and had been a strong supporter of American military assistance to Israel. “It is how he grew up, it’s part of his DNA,” said former congressman Israel. He was endorsed by the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby J Street in 2008, but did not seek the group’s help afterwards. He voted in support for the Iranian nuclear deal, an issue that split the Jewish community and Jewish Democrats in Congress.
Schiff grew up in a Jewish family in Massachusetts. He is married to Eve (and, yes, every possible joke about the Adam and Eve couple has already been made,) and has two children. His Jewish upbringing, Schiff told the Forward, is what led him to public service. “The call for service was instilled in me by my parents at a young age.” When trying to explain his path in public life, Schiff turns to the book of Micah, to the passage discussing God’s requirements from morals. “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” the verse reads. “These are three great rules to live by,” Schiff said.
One of Schiff’s main causes in Congress has been recognition of the Armenian genocide carried out by the Ottomans during World War I. As representative of the congressional district with the largest Armenian-American population, Schiff has fought tirelessly to win official recognition for the genocide, at times running counter to lobbying efforts of Jewish organization that had worked against this move in the past, of fear it would harm relations with Turkey, then a close ally of Israel.
When not in the committee office, Schiff is spending his time these weeks in front of TV cameras, trying to drive home the need to keep the congressional investigation alive. Aware of the responsibility that comes with leading an inquiry that could possibly implicate the President’s close circle in collusion with a foreign power, Schiff seeks to stress that it’s all about following the leads, not about setting the target.
“My obligation is to figure out just what the Russians did,” he said. “This has to be the goal of all of us and we have to keep this in mind because that’s the way of keeping our country safe from Russian actions.”
How will this quest end? Schiff will not speculate.
“We need to come to this with an open mind” he said. “We need to look at the facts.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman