The day after Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives, Donald Trump threatened retaliation against lawmakers who “waste Taxpayer Money” by scrutinizing him and his administration, and boasted of his power to end Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Then, late on Wednesday, he announced the resignation of the man at the helm of the department responsible for the Mueller probe: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Representative Adam Schiff, one of the top Democrats preparing to investigate the president, had a response at the ready. On Wednesday, he tweeted: “We will protect the rule of law.”
Now, with power shifting in Washington and the president seemingly prepared to intensify his fight against the Russia investigation, Schiff is poised to play a key role in the coming struggle.
When I spoke with Schiff, currently the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and the most likely chair of the committee in the next Congress, just ahead of the election, he didn’t indicate that Democrats would be deterred by the president. Investigations, he argued, are vital to the national interest.
“Within our committee, we certainly have a compelling interest in making sure that U.S. policy … is not driven by leverage that the Russians have over the president,” Schiff told me. “There have been credible allegations that the Russians may have laundered money through the Trump organization, and if that’s the case, then we need to be able to look into it and be able to tell the country, ‘Yes, this is true,’ or ‘No, this is not.’ But I think it would be negligent not to find out.” (“I keep hearing things about investigations,” Trump observed during a press conference on Wednesday. “They got nothing, zero. You know why? ’Cause there is nothing.”)
Schiff noted that Deutsche Bank, which was recently fined for failing to prevent Russian money laundering, loaned Trump money when other banks wouldn’t; that Donald Trump Jr. once spoke of money pouring into the Trump Organization from Russia; and that the president sold a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008 for more than twice what he had paid for it only several years earlier.
The congressman declined to detail the next steps of a possible investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, but indicated that he sees the work as correcting the failures of the House Intelligence Committee’s earlier Republican-led probe. That inquiry existed alongside investigations by Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee, and petered out last spring amid partisan acrimony.
Schiff offered one example of a theory about the president that he would seek to verify: Whether or not Trump was on the other end of a call that Donald Trump Jr. placed to a blocked number in June 2016. That call happened while his son was in the midst of arranging a meeting with Russians affiliated with the Kremlin who were peddling damaging information about Hillary Clinton, a detail that Democrats first flagged last spring as a point for further inquiry.
“We know the president used a blocked cellphone during the campaign, and so naturally we sought to subpoena the phone records to determine whether the president, despite his protestations to the contrary, was knowing and approving of this meeting with the Russians to get dirt on his opponent,” Schiff said, without elaborating on the source of the claim that Trump frequently used a blocked number. “The Republicans refused. They said, ‘We don't want to know.’ And that's the attitude they have taken during their role in the investigation.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Trump used a blocked number during the campaign, or on the other allegations and concerns Schiff mentioned.
The scrutiny from a Schiff-led committee and others may intensify the Russia probe. But he plans to dig even deeper.
“It's going to be important for Congress to ensure that U.S. foreign policy is being driven by U.S. national interests and not by Trump family finances,” Schiff said, in reference to the president’s business ties to Saudi Arabia and his pro-Saudi policies, such as backing the kingdom in its confrontation with neighboring Qatar. “The president has not truly divested his family’s interests or been the least bit transparent about it,” the congressman said, and lawmakers need to “make sure we’re protecting the country.”
Schiff envisioned wide-ranging examinations of uncomfortable subjects for the Trump administration: whether North Korea is really taking steps to denuclearize as part of the president’s diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, for instance, and the dangers generated by the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
One area where the Democratic agenda in the House could dovetail with Trump’s, however, is in confronting the economic and security threat posed by China. “Is China using its manufacture of electronics to corrupt our supply chain, to turn our supplies into backdoors for espionage purposes?” Schiff asked. “The theft of big data, like we had with [the U.S. Office of Personnel Management] and the use of data analytics: Is that allowing China to gain a competitive advantage?”
A larger—and, at the moment, more amorphous—project of the Democrat-controlled House may be to articulate and to actualize an alternative to the clarion call of America First. Schiff pointed to the challenges that rising authoritarianism is posing to liberal democracy everywhere, from Brazil to Hungary to Turkey to the Philippines.
“This rise of authoritarianism is one of the most serious national-security threats facing the country,” Schiff argued. “We have a president who makes common cause with autocrats, and has made the United States unrecognizable to a lot of our allies.”
“I think it's going to be vitally important that Congress step into the void and become the champion of democracy and human rights,” he told me, “because that role’s been abdicated by the president.”