When Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, opened hearings on “Russian meddling” in the 2016 election, he was more than ready. His introductory statement—a bold yet judicious presentation of the Russians’ misdeeds—was a moment for which he had prepared his entire career. From his stint as a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles right after Harvard Law School to his 16 years in Congress, Schiff had been sharpening his skills and achieving the seniority to attain his place on the committee.
The Russians, he asserted, had not only hacked the Democratic National Committee, they had also “weaponized” the stolen data, dumping it in ways that were “uniformly damaging to the candidate Putin despised, Hillary Clinton.” These dumps also “greatly benefited” Donald Trump’s campaign.
The word “weaponized” came up frequently in that first day of hearings. One could almost say that Schiff himself had been weaponized. He no longer looked like the man we were used to seeing on TV news shows. In interviews since January, Schiff had come off as a modest and thoughtful soccer dad—quiet, pink-cheeked and genial. But at that first hearing, Schiff became a full-on fighting machine: prosecutorial, clear-headed, and relentless. He commanded the room. “We are engaged in a new war of ideas,” Schiff said. “Not communism versus capitalism, but authoritarianism versus democracy and representative government.”
The televised hearings on March 20 riveted viewers across the nation. Many were seeing the congressman in action for the first time. On Facebook, regular citizens posted, “Go Adam Schiff!” And none other than Nixon buddy John Dean tweeted: “He may be Trump’s biggest problem in the House.”
In a chilling conclusion to his statement that was widely quoted on social media, Schiff said: “The stakes are nothing less than the future of liberal democracy.”
The congressman presented his case so forcefully that the Republicans in the chamber were taken aback. No Republican took issue with the content. Instead, they needled FBI Director James Comey to reveal the source of the leaks.
“The stakes are nothing less than the future of liberal democracy.”
Two days later, however, Devin Nunes, the committee’s chair and Schiff’s Republican counterpart, made a surprising move that was sharply criticized on both sides of the aisle—one that threatens to torpedo the investigation. Nunes is a 43-year-old dairy farmer who represents Tulare County, one of California’s few rural, red districts. An ardent member of Trump’s transition team, he appears to be as committed to Trump as Schiff is committed to truth, justice, representative government and democracy.
Without informing either Schiff or rest of the committee, Nunes slipped off to the White House and briefed the President on the investigation into the President. At the hearings, Comey had challenged Trump’s tweeted assertion that Obama had surveilled him, embarrassing the President in real time. The next day, Nunes jumped on the grenade, concocting a kooky story that seemed intended to allow Trump to save face. In the short term, this reckless gesture may have placated the president. In the long term, however, it may backfire, fueling a growing perception that the Republican-controlled committee cannot be fair or nonpartisan. And it may prompt the one thing the President fears most: an independent, nonpartisan investigation into the whole matter.
In both his rhetoric and his demeanor, Adam Schiff is the antithesis of President Trump. Soft-spoken and not particularly charismatic, he was not counted among the Democratic Party’s stars until recently. But in the past two months, propelled by his high-profile post on the House Intelligence Committee, he has become one of the most visible figures in the growing investigation into the Russia scandal, and a leading opponent of the Trump administration.
Despite his placid manner, Schiff has turned out to be a skilled political fighter and an effective Democratic spokesperson—an inescapable presence on cable and the Sunday morning news shows. His careful, cerebral style serves as a compelling counterpoint to the flashy, fact-challenged posture of the Trump administration. He comes off as less partisan and more relatable than other Democratic leaders (such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) while ably navigating the identity politics that have come to dominate the party. After the hearing, The New York Times suggested that Schiff might run for the Senate, if California Senator Dianne Feinstein declines to run again. Many observers are already talking him up as the Democrats’ best hope for the 2020 presidential race.
Last February, Schiff showed off his leadership at a recess town hall in Glendale, California, part of his home district. Republicans who have held similar town halls often faced scream fests, with constituents fuming about Trump policies that could, among other things, cost them their health insurance. (Appearing at a fractious town hall in Texas, Republican Congressman Joe Barton exploded at a constituent who accused him of ignoring violence against women. Utah Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz blamed angry outbursts on “paid protesters.”)
The scene in Glendale could not have been more different. More than 1,000 people, bundled up against a cold February night, waited for hours to pack the auditorium at Glendale Community College and a spillover space in the gym.
These constituents were angry—but not at Schiff, who enjoys sky-high approval ratings. He has managed to unite a district made up of interest groups that do not always agree with one another. They include Armenian-American immigrants in Glendale, wealthy conservatives in La Cañada Flintridge, suburbanites in Burbank, and the large, influential LGBTQ community in West Hollywood.
In person, Schiff is a quiet, almost self-effacing presence, free of the bluster and glad-handing that afflicts many of his political peers. “There’s nothing glib or superficial about him,” says Pasadena City Councilmember Steve Madison.
The 56-year-old Schiff stands 5’10” but looks taller because he carries himself upright, like the triathlete he is. Although he lacks what Madison calls the “back-slapping affability” of some politicians, he has a wry wit and perfect comic timing that wins over the public.
As soon as Schiff bounded up to the podium, the audience broke into loud cheers and prolonged applause. “I feel like walking out and coming back in again,” he joked. He scoffed at Chaffetz’s “paid protester” remark. “I don’t think this is some George Soros–led conspiracy,” he said. “It seems pretty darn organic to me.”
Schiff’s meeting focused on Trump’s first executive order and its effect on immigration. He shared the stage with leaders from the International Rescue Committee, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, and the ACLU. They detailed the cruel consequences of the travel ban and what their groups had done to help.
Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, spoke last and drew the most applause. “As many bans as Trump tries to pass, we’re gonna see him in court every time,” he said.
After fielding a couple of immigration questions, Schiff widened the meeting’s scope.
“What about the Russian hacking?” asked a young man from the “Hollywood-Silver Lake Resistance Posse.”
“Let me tell you what we know,” Schiff said. “We know the Russians done it! It wasn’t some 10-year-old sitting in a basement.”
But was there collusion?
“You can’t design a better candidate for Russian purposes than Donald Trump,” Schiff said. “But we won’t know what really happened without a full investigation.”
Another constituent, distraught, blurted: “The Republicans are moving so fast! It isn’t just the travel ban. They’re repealing Obamacare and crippling the public schools—”
Schiff agreed: They do seem to be in a hurry. But this may be because they fear that their time is limited. “They want to get what they can get before the wheels come off the wagon.”
The crowd gasped. This was blunt, not a politician’s euphemism. Then they clapped.
When the applause died down, Schiff promised, “And the wheels will be coming off.”
Because Schiff has become the darling of TV shows watched by educated liberals, as well as deadline news venues, scoring interview time with him was a challenge. I sat down with him, so to speak, for a cellphone conversation during his train ride from D.C. to New York, where he was booked on The Rachel Maddow Show. His comments on Russia were rendered obsolete by the next day’s news. But we discussed other topics, such as gun control and regional attitudes toward it.
Schiff recalled that during his first year in Congress in 2001, he was on a panel of representatives discussing the role of gun control in their campaigns. “In my suburban Los Angeles district, guns were a big issue,” he said. “It was about drive-by shootings at a daycare center, road rage, and gangs.”
Oklahoma Congressman Brad Carson spoke next. “Guns were a big issue in my district, too,” he told the group. “But it was about Lexington and Concord.”
Schiff was stunned. Still, he has hope for a resolution. “If attitudes can change so much for the better so quickly as they did on gay marriage, I hope they can change on the gun issue,” he said.
We also talked about health care, an issue of special concern to some of his West Hollywood constituents who depend on insurance and live with HIV. “Our first priority right now is to save the Affordable Care Act,” he told me. “Republicans have no idea what to replace it with, and we have seen the lowest levels of uninsured in our history.” But he was also realistic. If Obamacare is repealed, some constituents might not be able to afford the medications that keep them alive—a predicament that troubles him. “If worse comes to worst, we will work case-by-case to get people the treatment they need,” he said.
Schiff tries to shield his family from the limelight. His daughter is a freshman at Northwestern and his son is in middle school. When Schiff met his wife, Eve, she was working for Nestle USA; but she is now largely involved with bringing up their children. Schiff’s family, says Pasadena City Council Member Steve Madison, “is extremely important to him. It’s what keeps him grounded.”
Even under ideal circumstances, congressional investigations are slow and fraught with unanticipated obstacles. In the 1960s, Washington Post journalist Walter Pincus took two leaves of absence from the paper to help conduct investigations for Senator William Fulbright, who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time. Pincus had some success because he was part of a closed investigation that had bipartisan support.
Schiff faces a severe partisan challenge—which has already begun to play out with Nunes’s unprecedented briefing of President Trump. According to news reports, Schiff has fought hard to demand input on which witnesses the committee will subpoena and which records it will examine. But Nunes has shown that he is willing to risk censure and to appear ridiculous as long as he can thwart Schiff. A few days later, he even canceled an open hearing that was to include testimony from such pivotal figures as former Intelligence Chief James Clapper and fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
Schiff responded with a passionate rebuke of Nunes and his cowed Republican colleagues. He is, after all, a former federal prosecutor, a tough and astute lawyer who was best known for convicting an FBI agent who passed secrets to Russia. His strong anti-Trump stance is immensely popular in California, a state that voted for Hillary Clinton by a huge margin. and whose governor, Jerry Brown, has vowed to actively resist the President’s policies.
Schiff’s empathy is one of his strongest attributes: “Even if at the end of the day you and he don’t agree, you know he listened to you.”
But while the Trump investigation has dramatically raised Schiff’s profile, he’s not interested in simply grandstanding. For his committee to have a real impact, he’ll have to bridge partisan interests and develop a working relationship with Republicans who see the charges against Trump as a partisan attack. Luckily, Schiff is a conciliatory character by nature, a trait that has helped him to gracefully unite the disparate communities that make up his district. After the town hall in Glendale, Schiff walked around the auditorium and gym, greeting many of his constituents by name.
“I always feel like he’s really listening,” said Abbe Land, a former executive director of The Trevor Project who served on the West Hollywood City Council. She believes that Schiff’s empathy is one of his strongest attributes. “Even if at the end of the day you and he don’t agree, you know he listened to you,” she said.
Schiff’s district includes a large contingent of Armenian-Americans, an insular community that’s mostly concentrated in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. The Congressman has worked hard to earn their respect. These constituents care deeply about the Armenian Genocide, the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. To represent them, Schiff felt that he had to educate himself on the issue, so he studied Armenian. By 2013, he was fluent enough to deliver a speech about the genocide in Armenian on the floor of the House.
“Adam embraced that issue as if it were something that impacted his family on a personal level,” says Los Angeles County Assessor Jeffrey Prang, who has known Schiff for two decades. They met when Prang served on the West Hollywood City Council.
Schiff has also championed issues around affordable housing that have been of concern to West Hollywood’s large Russian immigrant community, mostly senior citizens who fled the Soviet Union in the 1980s. “Adam just dropped in, and it was like he was always there,” Land says. His photograph even hangs prominently behind the cash register at Traktir, a dusty Russian watering hole on Santa Monica Boulevard where Schiff often stops in for hot tea and blinis.
His inroads into the gay community are more recent. Schiff did not represent the Los Angeles LGBT Center in Hollywood until his district was redrawn in 2014. Once again, he won over this constituency, registering for the AIDS/LifeCycle bike ride without fanfare. He was going to make the 545-mile trip from San Francisco to L.A. not as a sitting congressman, but as a regular guy.
The ride did not begin auspiciously: His bike, which he had shipped to the Bay Area for the start of the tour, somehow got lost on the way. “Something like that would freak a lot of people out,” says Lorri L. Jean, CEO of the LGBT Center. “But not Adam. He simply bought another bike.”
Nor did he take what Jean calls the “princess tour,” staying in a hotel every night, as Jean herself did. Instead, he slept in tents, stood in line for food, and showered communally with the rest of the riders. Jean gave him her private cell number in case he had a problem, but he didn’t call. On the fifth day, Jean persuaded Schiff to give a talk to the cyclists. “He brought the house down,” she recalls. “I can’t remember everything he said. I think he picked on me. But he had great comic timing.”
“Adam’s self-confidence is not ego-driven,” she adds. “He doesn’t have to be a celebrity. But he’s willing to be called upon if asked.”
He also shows up when he isn’t asked. On November 9, 2016, the day after Trump won the election, hundreds gathered at the LGBT Center to process their shock and horror. Schiff surprised the gathering, calming, commiserating, and vowing to be part of the nascent resistance. Three months later, in February, when vandals defaced the facility with homophobic slurs, Schiff finally rang Jean’s private cell number, which he had kept since 2014. “I’m so sorry and saddened about all this,” he told her. Then he asked how he could help.
Over the years, Schiff has also been a mentor to more recently elected California representatives such as Mark Takano, a Japanese-American former high school teacher who recently won a second term. After Takano’s district was redrawn in 2014, Schiff sent Takano one of his top communications aides, who helped Takano win. The communications director cleverly raised Takano’s profile by having him mark up unintelligible Republican bills with a red pen as if they were poorly written high school papers.
Schiff, who moved from Massachusetts to Oakland, California, when he was 11, identifies as a “patriotic Californian” and an eager member of the state’s “resistance” movement. He graduated from Stanford before earning his JD from Harvard Law School—and he very nearly got an MD from Harvard as well. (During his senior year, he couldn’t decide which profession to enter, so he applied to both schools and got accepted by both.)
He plays politics by traditional rules—rules that predate Trump—and still maintains a belief in bipartisanship that seems almost quaint in comparison with those of some of his colleagues. At his town hall, Schiff mentioned a meeting at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that included a Texas Republican who supports planetary science and earth science and predicted that Arizona Senator John McCain will soon have his “finest hour.”
“People who play by the rules have a very hard time defeating those who don’t.”
Bipartisanship hinges on the idea that no political landscape is permanent; the sands are ever-shifting. California’s current state government, for example, has declared its opposition to Trump and the damage his administration aspires to do to immigrants, the environment, affordable health care, and LGBTQ rights.
But even California, which is often stigmatized outside the state as a liberal monolith, was not always that way. Historically, it has been a seedbed for right-wing ideas: Ronald Reagan launched his “revolution” as its governor in 1968. Still further from the mainstream, Breitbart, the white supremacist “news” organization that spawned Trump consigliere Steve Bannon, was founded in West L.A. in 2007. Even dead-eyed Trump political adviser Stephen Miller was incubated at Santa Monica High School.
Then there is the matter of rules. How will a committee dedicated to finding facts operate in a world of “alternative facts”? Schiff’s committee faces challenges greater than those faced during the investigation of the Watergate burglary. Nunes’s obsequious White House visit may be a harbinger of further loopy obstructionism to come. Schiff’s work is not just about defending the nation from treason; it is about defending truth from lies.
These hearings will be “the biggest test of our democratic system that I’ve ever seen,” Pincus told me. “People who play by the rules have a very hard time defeating those who don’t.”
Pincus knows Schiff well. The congressman speaks frequently for a course Pincus teaches for Stanford in Washington. He is sure that Schiff has the smarts to take on the White House. He is sure Schiff has the focus to endure months of hearings—and the resilience to handle unexpected curves. But Schiff is a “decent” man. If his committee uncovers damaging material, how will Schiff handle the blowback? The White House is not decent. How will Schiff hold up in a long, dirty fight?
“Adam doesn’t come over as tough,” says Pincus. “He comes over as reasonable. Reasonable doesn’t win.”
Endurance, however, might win, along with tenacity—and the ability to bounce back when partisan lackeys like Nunes throw garbage in his path. Tall, ruddy and confident, Schiff is a triathlete. Triathletes bike, run, and swim. They sweat. They are clean when they start the race but messy by the end. “I don’t run very fast,” Schiff confessed. “I get exhausted.” But he always makes it to the finish.
The fight against Trump—the battle to investigate his team’s connection to Russia—is not a 10K. It’s a triathlon, no matter who undertakes it. At best, the course will be grueling, bumpy, and punishing. With colleagues like Nunes, it is likely to be booby-trapped, sabotaged, and glazed over with slime. Never mind that Schiff is “reasonable.” He seems both determined and able to go the distance.