In some of his first public remarks since the president of the United States declared him “sleazy,” Adam Schiff denied the allegation, which Donald Trump made via Twitter this week. Trump “chose a poor descriptor because I don’t think that’s people’s impression of me,” the mellow Democrat from California told me. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but ‘sleazy’ isn’t one of them.”
Until, that is, the president branded him as the “totally biased Congressman looking into ‘Russia’” who “spends all of his time on television pushing the Dem loss excuse!” (“Sleazy” is a word that Trump has also affixed to Ted Cruz and Anthony Weiner.) And thus, in an instant, ended Schiff’s 57-year run of not being called sleazy. Schiff has since been widely described as such, in Twitter hashtags and by journalists reporting the day’s news, by legions of critics online, and even by some supporters hoping to reclaim the term. A colleague reached out to say he wanted to create a campaign button with the slogan, “I’m with sleazy,” Schiff recalled.
“My initial reaction [to Trump’s tweet] was I felt like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters—that I’d just been slimed,” said Schiff, who learned that the commander in chief had cast aspersions on his character shortly before boarding a flight from California to Washington, D.C.
“After being kind of amused by it, it really distressed me that the office of the presidency had sunk to this,” Schiff added.
Schiff’s distress, however, didn’t keep him from pinning his response to Trump’s tweet to the top of his Twitter feed (“With respect Mr. President, the problem is how often you watch TV, and that your comments and actions are beneath the dignity of the office”), or from fundraising off the incident. He acknowledged that he considered Trump’s insult a badge of honor. “I feel like I’m joining a proud society along with Meryl Streep and the cast of Hamilton,” he said. (Trump, you may recall, tweeted that Streep and the Hamilton cast were “overrated” after they criticized him and his administration. “I was hoping if he was going to attack me he would call me … the ‘highly overrated Adam Schiff,’” the congressman confided.)
Schiff noted, unprompted, that while Twitter is Trump’s preferred mode of communication, “our response to his tweet was much better-received than his original tweet.” (In the arithmetic of contemporary politics, Schiff’s correct, based on the stats as of press time: 128,000 likes + 44,000 retweets + 8,600 replies > 80,000 likes + 21,000 retweets + 39,000 replies.)
Schiff thinks Trump lashed out at him either because of a Face the Nation appearance a day earlier in which Schiff argued that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had the authority to investigate whether Russians laundered money through the Trump Organization—an uncorroborated allegation at this point—or because of a Fox News segment that was critical of those comments and aired only minutes before Trump’s tweet. (Hence Schiff calling out Trump’s TV-watching habits.)
But the sliming of Schiff is also part of a larger pattern: Trump dramatically ramping up efforts in recent days to discredit the leading sources of information on investigations into whether his campaign colluded with the Russian government, from condemning the “Failing New York Times” and “Amazon Washington Post” to chronicling the “conflicts of interest” of Special Counsel Mueller and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
The president “clearly views me as a threat,” said Schiff, who as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee is deeply involved in that body’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “I think he views me as an effective communicator, and wants to discourage me from doing that.”
This week, the White House publicized a report showing that since January, Schiff has spent a total of 14 hours, eight minutes, and 55 seconds on national television over the course of 123 interviews, while his counterpart on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Mark Warner, has spent nearly six hours on air. The chairwoman of the Republican National Committee accused the two lawmakers of appearing on TV to raise their own stature and bring down Trump rather than out of genuine concern about the results of the Russia investigations they’re helping lead. (“Adam Schiff walks around with a cutout of the Capitol above his head,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway recently scoffed.)
Schiff conceded that relative to the Russia probes, there are issues of greater “immediate concern to Americans” at the moment, such as whether millions of people could lose their health insurance under proposed Republican health-care legislation. But he defended his focus on Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
“Russia is trying to take down the idea of liberal democracy in the United States and around the world,” he told me. “We are in a new global war of ideas with Russia, where [Vladimir] Putin is leading the vanguard of the autocratic movement. ... Unfortunately, we have a president who is abdicating leadership of the free world.” Back home, however, he’s leading a local war of tweets.