‘What the Russians Did Was Utterly Unprecedented’

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee criticizes Donald Trump, and the leader and members of his own party, for mishandling a “grave danger” to the republic.

Susan Walsh / AP

Well before the White House or U.S. intelligence agencies publicly blamed the Russian government for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, two members of Congress did. Back in September, Adam Schiff, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a statement accusing Russian intelligence agencies of hacking Democratic Party institutions. “Americans will not stand for any foreign government trying to influence our election,” they declared. “We hope all Americans will stand together and reject the Russian effort.”

Ultimately, however, many Americans did just the opposite: They stood still and they stood apart. Over 40 percent of Americans now say they’re not especially bothered by reports of hackers working with the Russian government to influence the U.S. election; most Democrats say they’re bothered by the interference, while most Republicans say they aren’t. President Obama waited until after the election to personally detail Russia’s involvement in the hacks and leaks; President-elect Trump hasn’t even acknowledged that involvement.

When I visited Schiff late last week in his Capitol Hill office, the form of Barack Obama’s promised retaliation against Russia and the nature of Congress’s investigation into the Russian cyber campaign were still glaring unknowns. But the story dominating the news was Donald Trump’s reaction to a terrorist attack in Berlin. Not long after a foreign government’s attempt to alter American politics, America had seemingly moved on to other matters.

Schiff is refusing to move on. The future of liberal democracy in the United States and around the world is at stake, he told me, and the U.S. government is rapidly running out of time to respond to the threat (Schiff says he has no confidence that Trump will punish Russia over its role in the election). In Trump’s denial of Russian meddling, Schiff sees a “president-elect who cannot accept any facts that diminish any of his achievements, no matter how well-established the facts are.” But Schiff is also critical of Obama, whose “excess of caution” ended up “inviting too much Russian interference.” And he’s critical of his own party. “Democrats failed to persuade the American people why they should care” about Russia’s intervention, he said.

Below, in an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, Schiff makes his case for why Americans should care.

Uri Friedman: What just happened? And what I mean by that is not just: Did the Russian government direct a cyber campaign against the U.S. in the midst of its election? Michael Morell, the former acting CIA director, recently said that a foreign government interfering in [a U.S.] election is an “existential threat to our way of life” and the “political equivalent of 9/11.” Do you agree with that assessment? If not, how would you describe what just happened?

Adam Schiff: I do agree with the assessment that the combination of cyber hacking, dumping of information, dumping of potentially forged information in the future, the propagation of fake-news stories—all of these “active measures” by Russia to interfere in our elections, to interfere in European elections—is a game-changer. It is of phenomenal importance and it’s a grave danger to the country. It’s a grave danger to liberal democracy, period. We’ve seen a creeping authoritarianism around the world, and this has been enabled by the cyber revolution. What we saw the Russians do in our presidential election was just utterly unprecedented in its scope and in its impact.

I think this began as a cyber infiltration, and maybe this is the reason why the FBI wasn’t more diligent about its investigation. Initially [the FBI] may have viewed this [campaign] as for intelligence-gathering and been unaware that the Russians would later weaponize this information. This isn’t the first election where foreign nations have shown an interest in what the political parties are doing, what the political candidates are doing, what anyone, any institution that may have an impact on policy toward that country may be thinking. What made this so unique was the Russian willingness to dump this information in a way to damage one of the candidates, Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton, and in so doing help another candidate, Donald Trump.

What made it so powerful was that we had the unusual specter of a major party and its nominee giving the Russians deniability. In any other election in modern U.S. history, had Russia been interfering in the political process in a way that benefitted one candidate, you would have had both candidates repudiating it. Neither would want to be associated with Russia, neither would want to be the beneficiary of stolen information. But here you had, in Donald Trump, someone who was willing, on the one hand, to egg on the Russians to hack more, but on the other to give them deniability—a feat of both mental and rhetorical gymnastics that few could pull off. But he did.

The other thing—and I think the Democrats have to accept responsibility for this—is [that] the fact of the Russian hacking was known during the campaign. It was acknowledged publicly by the intelligence community in early October. Democrats failed to persuade the American people why they should care. People were more interested in the content of the [leaked Democratic] emails than the fact that a foreign hostile power was trying to manipulate them by dumping this information. And we had all the facts that we needed to make that case. We just didn’t make it.

[The cyber campaign] clearly had an impact [on the election]. Whether it was decisive or not we’ll never know. In a close election, any fact can be decisive. But there’s no refuting the Russian involvement in our elections. And that ought to be alarming to every American regardless of its impact.

Friedman: What do you make of the argument Obama put forward during [his end-of-year] press conference that this [campaign] wouldn’t have been so effective if the U.S. political climate hadn’t been so poisonous and divided?

Schiff: I think the president is absolutely right. I have been saying for many years now that the greatest danger that we face is our own broken governance, and the degree to which it has become so toxically partisan [that] it prevents us from getting necessary things done.

In the context of the Russian cyber hacking, what it meant was that people’s party identity was so firmly entrenched that Republicans didn’t care enough about Russian hacking as long as it was helping their candidate. Even now you’ve seen Republican attitudes toward Russia change because of the expediency of who their new party leader is. And that’s largely, I think, influenced by core GOP hostility to Democrats.

Now, that being said, I think the president should have come out earlier with attribution [for the cyber campaign]. I don’t accept the argument that [the administration] couldn’t come out earlier because they hadn’t established the evidence of attribution. The evidence was clear for a very long time before they were public about it. Senator [Dianne] Feinstein and I made public attribution [regarding Russia in September], before the intelligence community did, which is rare. I also think the process of sanctioning Russia should have begun far earlier, and we should have worked with our European allies to impose costs on Russia. That would have also telegraphed to the American people how serious this was.

By not doing more, by not saying more, the administration missed an important opportunity to help inform the American public about the serious nature of the meddling that was going on.

Now they did that for two reasons, one of which I find at least partly persuasive, even though I don’t agree with it. One I don’t find persuasive at all. They did that because they didn’t want to appear as putting their hand on the political scales. That excess of caution, though, meant that the American public [didn’t have] as full an appreciation of the significance of what the Russians were doing as they should have.

The other reason was that they didn’t want to play into Russian hands by suggesting that the results of the election might be impacted or hacked or interfered with or somehow rigged when they had one of the candidates, Donald Trump, who was saying the process was rigged. That argument never resonated with me. The American public understood that someone was hacking and somebody was dumping. To the degree the elections were being interfered with, they understood that someone was doing this. As I argued at the time, being more forthcoming about the Russian role in this was important for the American people to understand before the election, and they could use those facts in whatever way they deemed relevant. To wait until after to tell them more about Russian meddling, I [thought], would prompt the criticism they’re hearing now, which is: They should have said more when they had an opportunity.

Friedman: But do you think it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t? [Since the election] Trump has said, “Why didn’t we hear about this before?” But had [more information from the Obama administration] come out during the election, weren’t we in a climate where Republicans would have immediately leapt on that as an example of partisan interference?

Schiff: Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that this was the right decision. Yes, the administration would have been the subject of criticism that they were only talking about the Russian hack or publishing information about it because they wanted to help Secretary Clinton. But there was an obligation on the administration’s part, when they saw a foreign nation trying to meddle, to be very blunt about it and very open about it, and to withstand the criticism if and when they were criticized.

Friedman: The idea that “politics stops at the water’s edge”—that foreign policy shouldn’t be politicized—has always been a fantasy. We’ve always had raucous political debates about foreign policy. But in this case, Donald Trump is questioning whether any foreign government, let alone Russia, was involved in the hacks or leaks. He’s suggested that reports that the Russians were involved are an example of his political opponents trying to delegitimize his election. In other words, the very reality of the incident—of whether an action was [even] taken by a foreign government—has become something of a partisan issue. What do you think that does to America’s ability to respond to clear and present threats, especially cyber threats?

Schiff: In this case it’s less a partisan issue than it is a Donald Trump issue, because among Democrats and Republicans there is very broad acceptance that the Russians hacked and meddled in the election. Certainly among those on the intelligence committees who’ve been briefed on it, there’s no doubt about the Russian meddling. There may be a division of opinion among members [of Congress] about the mixture of motivations the Russians had. But there’s no doubt about the fact that this was the Russians, not the Chinese and not some 400-pound guy sitting on his bed.

It’s not unlike the issue that Donald Trump has with losing the popular vote. The two most disturbing things I’ve seen since the election by the president-elect were, first, his claim that millions of illegal immigrants voted; otherwise he would have won the popular vote. That’s pure fiction. For someone who is about to be our president to publish that falsity is alarming. What followed close on the heels of that was the unwillingness to accept that the Russians had meddled in a way that helped him. And so he has to deny the underlying facts.

Both of those things tell me this is a president-elect who cannot accept any facts that diminish any of his achievements, no matter how well-established the facts are. That worries me a great deal for when he becomes president. Does that mean that he is going to ignore intelligence that contradicts his personal views because [it’s] less beneficial to him? That is a very dangerous trait to have in a commander in chief.

He’s doing long-term damage both to the intelligence community that risks its neck to provide a lot of these insights and analysis, but also to his own success as president and the country’s success, because there’ll be a national-security crisis at some point. It may come early in [Trump’s] administration or it may come later. He’ll have to deal with it, as every other president has. He’ll go before the American people, and the people will need to believe him. But he’s making that very hard by publishing these patently false statements. He will be relying on our intelligence when he makes decisions about how to respond on North Korea or China or Russia or Iran. He’s going to want the American people and our allies to believe what our intelligence is telling him. And he’s undermining that confidence every time he picks a fight with the intelligence community.

Friedman: Americans [have been] reading a flurry of reports recently in the media about the extent of Russian involvement and intent in this campaign. Can you help them sort fact from fiction and speculation at this point? How would you summarize what the U.S. government knows and doesn’t yet know about the nature of this campaign?

Schiff: I’m limited in what the intelligence community has declassified. But I think what is most important for the American people to know is that there’s no question that the Russians hacked into our institutions. The president made an additional disclosure during his press conference that the Russians hacked into [Hillary Clinton campaign chief] John Podesta’s account. Prior to that, the intelligence community had not been specific as to which institutions and which individuals. The Russians also strategically dumped information that they hacked. Those disclosures universally harmed Secretary Clinton and benefitted Donald Trump.

As to why the Russians did it, there’s a high degree of consensus among the intelligence agencies. Until they issue the report [that Obama requested] in a few weeks, that’s not something I can talk about on the basis of intelligence. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or secret sources of information to recognize that in Secretary Clinton, [the Russians] had a candidate who they thought would be standing up to Russia, hostile to Russia, someone who’d been critical of their flawed elections in 2011. And in Donald Trump they had someone who was admiring of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, dismissive of NATO, and willing to potentially repeal sanctions [against Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine]. The Russians had every reason to prefer Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

There [could have been] a variety of motives at work: sowing distrust in our political process, causing us to fight amongst ourselves, weakening Secretary Clinton, helping Donald Trump. And more than that: given how Russian democracy has been systematically dismantled by Putin and his cronies, the ability to take down American democracy a few notches—to make the case that American democracy is no better than Russian democracy, Americans are just hypocrites, they’re just as corrupt and things are just as rigged as they say Russian elections are. That’s a signal accomplishment for Putin if he can achieve it.

Friedman: What should Americans think about whether Vladimir Putin was directly involved in this?

Schiff: The president put his finger on it during the press conference when he said that the idea that you would have people in Russia freelancing without [Putin’s] knowledge, without his approval, in something as consequential as attempting to influence a U.S. election is pretty unthinkable. When the director of national intelligence and the secretary of homeland security issued their statement in October that the sensitivities and scope of this indicated that it had to come from the highest levels of the Kremlin, there’s only one person calling the shots at the highest level of the Kremlin, and that’s Putin.

Friedman: Do you see any shift in Donald Trump and his team’s position on this? The latest comments from Trump have still [expressed] deep skepticism of both Russian government involvement and [any] intent of tipping the election for him or against Clinton. But [Trump’s incoming chief of staff] Reince Priebus seemed to shift a tiny bit by saying that if the FBI and intelligence agencies create some kind of unified consensus report, that might change things.

Schiff: We’re all reading the tea leaves, or perhaps more accurately the tweet leaves in the case of the president-elect. I thought that when [Trump] tweeted an attack on President Obama, saying why didn’t he say something sooner, that might be the beginning of a pivot. And Reince Priebus said that, well, if the intelligence community issues a report and they’re in agreement, then we may accept it. These may all be signals that there’s a change coming.

But I don’t think anyone knows. I’m not sure the president-elect knows at this point or has made a decision. I do think that the sober minds around him—to the degree there are sober minds around him—understand that they’re going to have to acknowledge the uncontested Russian involvement here. So at some point they’re going to have to find a face-saving way to do that, and the sooner, the better. We may be reading far too much into what the president-elect’s handlers are saying, because they’ve often been expressing what they hoped would be the case, rather than what the president-elect intends to do.

Friedman: More broadly than his handling of these specific breaches, do you think [Obama] has been tough enough on Russia? Or do you think his policies encouraged the Kremlin to launch the aggressive, ambitious campaign that it did?

Schiff: I think history will treat President Obama very well, and I think on many of his domestic and foreign-policy positions he has been thoughtful and insightful.

I do think, in the case of Russia, that the administration should have leaned harder against the Russians, pushed back harder against the Russians—that the Russians view anything less than a full-throated opposition as encouragement. Early on I advocated that we provide the Ukrainians with defensive weapons, and I thought it was a mistake not to do that.

I also thought we should have more forcefully responded when the Russians were hacking, and to the North Koreans for that matter. When we didn’t adequately respond to the North Korean hacking [of Sony in 2014], that may have sent a message that we would tolerate other hacking.

I think—and this is the most difficult question, and it will be the most difficult part of the president’s legacy—that the failure to provide Secretary [of State John] Kerry with more leverage in his negotiations with the Russians over Syria meant that the Russians never took those negotiations seriously. They played rope-a-dope, they played for time, they wanted to change the facts on the battlefield and were content to let the secretary convene multiple negotiations where the Russians had to go through the motions of discussing the matter, but the reality was that they were going to do what they were going to do on the ground.

So I do think that the Russians came away feeling that they could be as aggressive as they wanted and they wouldn’t face much pushback. I still hope the administration will remedy that to the degree they can in the time we have left. I would love to see them implement sanctions. [Obama] has the unilateral authority to do it. It would be more effective in combination with our partners, but there’s probably not much time for that.

Friedman: Sanctions against whom?

Schiff: The optimal would be economic sanctions, in cooperation with our European partners that have been the subject of Russian meddling also. That would make the Russians pay a real economic price. There are obviously a number of alternatives short of that: You can sanction sectors of the [Russian] economy, you can sanction individuals or Russian entities. The more specific you get, the less impactful [the sanctions] are.

Friedman: How do you do that without prompting unwanted escalation or poisoning Russian cooperation [with the U.S.] on [fighting] ISIS or [the nuclear deal with] Iran?

Schiff: First of all, we’re not getting any Russian cooperation on Iran or on Syria or on Ukraine or on just about anything else, so there’s little risk there. That may be more of an issue for the next president than for this one.

I think your response has to be proportionate. The Russians don’t want to do things that are going to be self-defeating, that are going to invite further economic devastation on themselves, so the Russians have to be careful not to escalate out of control also.

But the debate, I think, within the [Obama] administration has always been: Will steps risk too much of an escalation? When the impact has been inviting too much Russian interference because there hasn’t been enough of a pushback. I think they have erred too much on the side of caution. And that has ended up costing us.

Friedman: The president says he’ll respond at a “time and place of our choosing.” He’s definitely running out of time. President Trump is coming into office soon. Do you expect there to be any retaliation against Russia come January 20?

Schiff: I have no confidence that President Trump will bring about any sanctions on Russia. I think during the course of the campaign, Trump’s view was: I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me, and right now the hand that feeds me is coming from the Kremlin. He is going to want to demonstrate to the American people that he’s been vindicated by having a new relationship with the Kremlin. Sanctioning them right out of the box is, I think, not going to be one of the options. I’m more worried that he’s going to repeal the sanctions we already have [against Russia] than impose new ones.

So I think the [Obama] administration ought to do what it’s going to do ASAP. That may be some measure of sanctions [that Obama] can impose unilaterally, but those also may not survive the test of time. The clandestine steps that he takes now are things that could not be easily undone by the incoming administration. And that would also send a powerful message to the Russians.

Friedman: What are the clandestine measures?

Schiff: There are a variety of alternatives. I won’t catalogue all of them. But one that appeals to me is one that has been discussed by commentators. And that is revealing corruption within the Kremlin and Putin’s own corruption. That’s a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle by the next president.