The inside story of the California Democrat's failed crusade to investigate Donald Trump
The inside story of the California Democrat's failed crusade to investigate Donald Trump
"Here's some advice," says Hardball host Chris Matthews. It's 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in MSNBC's Washington, D.C., greenroom. Rep. Adam Schiff, who just wrapped up an appearance on The Beat With Ari Melber, is getting his TV makeup wiped off, while Matthews offers some political wisdom to Schiff's deputy communications director. "You've got to say something that leads to impeachment," Matthews urges. "Anything. That's the business we're in."
For the past year, as the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Schiff has been the face of a beleaguered investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The week of this particular MSNBC appearance, in March, the top Republican on the committee publicly declared, "We found no evidence of collusion." It was the ending Schiff had tried to warn the American people was coming for months; in an endless series of media hits, he repeatedly spoke of Republican efforts to sabotage what should have been a serious bipartisan effort. But Schiff – mild-mannered, judicious, vegan – has sometimes struggled to, as Matthews puts it, "say something with bite."
I mention Matthews' advice the next morning, as we walk out of another TV appearance, this time on CNN. Schiff just smiles. "I've gotten a lot of positive feedback on maintaining my calm," he offers. "I find if you scream, people just tune you out." His voice drops to slightly above a whisper. "If you want people to hear you, you have to talk in a way that they'll listen."
As a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, Schiff secured, among other verdicts, the first-ever espionage conviction of an FBI agent, a self-described sufferer of a "James Bond" fantasy who was seduced by a Soviet KGB asset named Svetlana Ogorodnikov. It was Schiff's experience conducting large-scale white-collar investigations that initially landed him on the House intelligence committee. "It helps to know the right questions to ask, and the evidence that you need, and how to organize an investigation," says Schiff. "And then how to talk about it in a way that people can understand."
It's a good skill set for someone, say, charged with overseeing the most consequential congressional investigation since Watergate. In contrast to special counsel Robert Mueller, whose mandate is to determine if criminal activity took place, and, if so, bring charges, the job of the Senate and the House is to create a public record of what the hell happened and propose policy solutions to fix it. But while the Senate's interviews are conducted by committee staff, the House effort is led by the members of Congress themselves. In the end, that might have been the problem.
A few days after Trump's inauguration, Schiff and the committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, announced their investigation in a sober joint statement. "This issue is not about party, but about country," the pair wrote. "The committee will continue to follow the facts wherever they may lead." At the investigation's opening hearing, on March 20th, 2017, Schiff delivered an 18-minute salvo listing every publicly known connection between Trump associates and Russia – from Michael Flynn's false statements about conversations with the Russian ambassador to Roger Stone's prediction that Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman would be the victim of a Russian hack. Afterward, FBI director James Comey testified, disclosing publicly for the first time that the bureau was scrutinizing possible links between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
For Schiff, there was almost no metric by which the day could have gone better. He'd learn only later that his Republican colleagues were devastated. "They thought it was an unmitigated disaster," Schiff says. "I think they viewed their job, apparently, differently than I did. They viewed their job as defending the president."
The House Intelligence Committee hasn't been around very long. Schiff, who is 57, was already bar mitzvahed by the time Congress convened a committee in 1975 following reports that the Central Intelligence Agency was illegally conducting surveillance on anti-war protesters. A few years later, the 22-member panel became a permanent fixture, appropriating budgets, vetting policies and serving as a check on the intelligence community. From the beginning, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) has had a reputation as a uniquely apolitical group. Members handle the country's most sensitive secrets – the kind of material that could have life-or-death consequences. It's also the only committee where majority and minority staffs, many of them former intelligence-community folks, work together in a single room, a windowless space in the basement of the Capitol known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF).
At the start of Trump's term, Schiff had reason to be hopeful the committee would uphold its bipartisan traditions. For one thing, he had a good working relationship with Nunes. Their California districts are about 150 miles apart, and they had worked closely together for two terms before being elevated to leadership in 2015. A local newspaper even called it a "bromance." "Bromance is probably too strong," Schiff admits today. "But we certainly got along very well. We were both Oakland Raiders fans, and he wasn't particularly ideological on the issues – he was fairly pragmatic."
Almost as soon as the investigation opened, the relationship collapsed. On the evening of March 21st, Nunes received a phone call summoning him to a meeting at the White House. A pair of presidential advisers briefed him on classified reports that surveillance of foreign officials had picked up communications of the Trump campaign and transition team (of which Nunes was a member). The next day, Nunes held a press conference outside the White House, announcing his plans to personally alert the president. He didn't disclose the fact that his knowledge of the alleged abuses originated from the White House itself. "The midnight run," as Schiff has taken to calling it, "really changed the trajectory of the committee's work." The House Ethics Committee opened an investigation, and Nunes was eventually forced to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, at least officially. "The reality," Schiff says, "was that he never stepped aside."
According to Schiff and other members of the committee, Nunes, who was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by the ethics committee, continued to operate as the shadow chair – signing subpoenas and dispatching members of his staff on clandestine foreign reconnaissance trips, including a failed attempt to locate Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy who authored the Trump-Russia dossier. Any time members of the committee asked his replacement, Mike Conaway, to make a decision, "we were told he's 'gotta run that up the chain,' " says Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.
As a member of the minority party, Schiff lacked the power to subpoena crucial documents or compel witness testimony. "It was enormously frustrating," Schiff says. "But more than frustrating, it was so discouraging that here we had this very important responsibility and it was like pulling teeth to get the Republicans to do, at a minimum, what we should do."
The committee never attempted to interview Trump campaign and transition officials like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates or George Papadopoulos. They never called Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who offered Don Jr. damaging information on Hillary Clinton, nor Stephen Miller – now known to have been present in a second meeting in which the UAE and Saudi Arabia offered the Trumps help to win the election – nor deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland, who reportedly wrote in an e-mail during the transition that sanctions would make it harder for Trump to improve relations with Russia, "which has just thrown the USA election to him."
Ten of the 13 Republicans on the committee didn't show up for the majority of witness interviews, Schiff says. Most of them were absent "from the very beginning." Those who did participate – typically, Conaway, Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney – didn't seem particularly invested in the process. Gowdy, who often led questioning on behalf of the Republicans, seemed to craft interviews designed to elucidate as little information as possible. He would ask witnesses if they knew the definition of "collusion, coordination and conspiracy," and then whether they had evidence Trump campaign associates had done any of the above. Exchanges, like one between Gowdy and Carter Page, an early foreign-policy adviser, who was then the target of an FBI investigation, often went nowhere.
Gowdy: "Do you have any evidence . . . of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russia government to access John Podesta or the DNC e-mail accounts?"
Page: "I have no evidence at all."
It was maddening, Schiff says. "Of course they're going to say they didn't collude. It's not like Perry Mason, where people break down on the stand and admit everything." (None of the Republican committee members agreed to be interviewed for this article.)
Even some of the witnesses marveled at the Republicans' negligence. In undercover video captured by Britain's News Channel 4, Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the data consultancy whose services were retained by the Trump campaign, told a prospective client, "The Republicans asked three questions. Five minutes, they were done. The Democrats asked two hours of questions." (Cambridge Analytica is now under investigation by the FBI as well.)
Like Nix, almost all of the witnesses who testified did so voluntarily, which meant those who did show up could pick and choose which questions to answer. Take Erik Prince, the founder of the private military company Blackwater, who reportedly took a meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian oligarch in order to establish a back channel between Russia and the Trump campaign. Prince says the purpose of the meeting was to do business with the United Arab Emirates.
Another Seychelles participant has contradicted that claim, saying the meeting was to establish a pre-inauguration line of communication between the Trump transition team and Russia. When Prince was asked whether he had any past dealings with the UAE, he refused to answer. Conaway, the committee's acting chair, refused to compel a response, according to a member of the committee. But Prince, as The New York Times has reported, did have past business with the UAE: In the middle of the 2016 campaign, he reportedly arranged a meeting where an Israeli propaganda specialist and an emissary for the UAE offered Donald Trump Jr. help to win the 2016 election – an illegal arrangement, if it did exist.
The committee might have uncovered this separate case of possible collusion months earlier, if Republicans had insisted on an answer from Prince. When witnesses failed to respond, Democrats did what any capable interrogator would: They asked more questions, in different ways, which often extended sessions for hours. "The Republicans were pissed that these interviews were going so long," says Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat. "It's because the guy wouldn't answer the fucking question!"
"The Republicans on the Intel Committee viewed their job differently than I did," says Schiff. "They viewed their job as defending the president."
Three days before Christmas, Schiff was with another committee member in New York when his phone buzzed with a news alert: The committee had requested interviews with two of Trump's former campaign managers, Steve Bannon and Corey Lewandowski. For months, tensions had been rising inside the SCIF. There was talk of building a physical barrier between the cubicles of Democrats and Republicans – "It's absolute poison down there," Republican member Rooney told a reporter. Schiff suspected Republicans were coming under intense pressure to end the investigation. "They started unilaterally scheduling witnesses, bringing them in sometimes two or three a day," Schiff says. "It became clear they were in a headlong rush."
In retrospect, the decision to subpoena Bannon shouldn't have been a surprise. Eleven days earlier, the publication of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury had provoked a falling-out between the president and his former chief strategist. A number of Republicans had been targeted by Breitbart, the right-wing news website Bannon ran, so there might have been some "dancing on the grave of a political enemy," Swalwell says. The proceedings stalled, though, when Bannon was asked about Trump. He referred the committee to a list of questions, preapproved by the White House. The answer to every question was "No."
Even as the committee wielded its subpoena power as a cudgel against the president's enemies, it was the protracted fight over Nunes' memo – a four-page document accusing the FBI of improperly approving a FISA warrant to surveil Page – that truly exposed its squandered integrity. On January 29th, the committee convened to vote on the release of the Nunes memo and a point-by-point rebuttal authored by Schiff. Behind closed doors, Schiff offered a stinging indictment. "What we are seeing here is the result of having a president of the United States who does not appear to respect the institutions of our government or a system with checks and balances," Schiff told his fellow members. "And it's hard for me to escape the conclusion that this is anything but doing the bidding of the White House."
The committee's Republicans voted en bloc to release only the Nunes memo, which was roundly ridiculed as incomplete or inaccurate. It also had the unintended effect of exposing Nunes' hijinks. Schiff says Republicans have since approached him – in the House elevators or the cloakroom or dining hall – to quietly offer encouragement. "They say, 'Keep up what you're doing,'" he tells me. "In so many words, they'd say that their party is not in a position to get answers to what happened in the election and the role of the Trump campaign. They really need us to do it."
By the time Donald Trump's former campaign manager Lewandowski appeared before the committee in March, any illusions about the investigation – including the premise that it met the criteria of an "investigation" at all – had long been dispelled. At the witness table, Lewandowski avoided eye contact with the members peering down at him from the dais, like a "pouty little brat," one observer said. He answered queries with a curt "yes" or "no" before seeming to tire of the whole charade, telling the committee at one point, "I'm not answering your fucking questions." According to people who were present, Schiff asked Conaway to compel Lewandowski to answer. As he had on previous occasions, Conaway declined. ("I had to repeat on multiple occasions that there was no collusion, cooperation or coordination because the Democrats couldn't understand my plain English way of speaking," Lewandowski told CNN.)
The following Monday, Conaway declared the Russia investigation over. On Fox News that night, when asked about the majority's finding of no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, Conaway said, "Well, we found none." Then he added, "You never know what you never know. But we have no reason to think that there's something we're missing in this regard."
The next day, Schiff and the other committee Democrats released a list of 10 witnesses and three companies the committee never subpoenaed, 40 witnesses they failed to call at all, eight major lines of inquiry left untouched and 26 companies with relevant documents that were never requested.
In April, the majority released a heavily redacted 250-page report on its findings. Among its recommendations: Congress should repeal the Logan Act (the law Flynn was accused of violating after he discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump's inauguration); the executive branch should consider instituting mandatory polygraph tests to discourage leaking; and Congress should consider legislation to increase the penalty for leaking. The GOP majority also suggested it was not clear that Russia wanted Trump to be president in the first place.
Nunes has now turned his attention to learning the identity of an FBI informant who sought to understand whether members of the Trump campaign were compromised by Russia. "The latest batshit crazy to come from that office," as Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., describes the chair's efforts. "I walked into HPSCI yesterday, and Nunes is threatening to hold the attorney general in contempt."
Schiff, meanwhile, is calling on Republicans to release the full transcripts of the committee's interviews, while quietly continuing the investigation, collecting documents and interviewing additional witnesses. He'll keep appearing on television, too – calmly, methodically, deliberately, making the argument, in so many words, that Republicans are standing idly by as Trump drives the country into a wood chipper. "I am deeply alarmed at what I see the president doing to the country, and what I see as the complicity of my colleagues," Schiff says. "It's really hard to overstate the significance of what they're doing. I don't want people to assume that because I'm calm, it doesn't mean that I'm not desperately concerned."