Adam Schiff’s Last Laugh (For Now)

The House Intelligence Committee chairman has spent months illuminating Trump’s alleged misdeeds with little result. Perhaps that’s about to change.

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For months on end, Representative Adam Schiff waged an often lonely quest, subject to the mockery of his Republican colleagues and second-guessing from skeptics, as he doggedly pursued allegations that President Donald Trump had welcomed the interference of a foreign power in an American election.

The stunning revelation that Trump asked the president of Ukraine this summer to investigate the dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter in the country—and an intelligence whistle-blower’s accompanying complaint that White House officials allegedly tried to cover up that request—amounted to quiet vindication for Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

It hardly seemed to matter that the country involved was Ukraine, not Russia, and the presidential election in question was 2020’s, not 2016’s. Schiff’s long-standing contention that there was “ample evidence of collusion in plain sight” between the president or his political allies and a foreign government has now been more than borne out, albeit in a different scenario that Schiff could never have predicted.

If the conclusion of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was murky—with its finding of insufficient evidence that Trump’s campaign directly coordinated with Russian officials to influence the outcome—the latest revelations about Trump’s communication with Ukraine are burdened by no such ambiguity.

“There can be no claim of ignorance this time,” Schiff told reporters this afternoon after his committee heard three hours of testimony from Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. That is, of course, because the White House’s own summary of Trump’s July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has Trump directly asking for the “favor” of looking into Hunter Biden’s business dealings there, in implicit exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in American military aid to Ukraine.

The anonymous whistle-blower’s complaint alleges that the call was just one part of a long-running campaign by Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to prompt Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Earlier today, in a phone call with the Atlantic White House reporter Elaina Plott, Giuliani said, “It is impossible that the whistle-blower is a hero and I’m not. And I will be the hero! These morons—when this is over, I will be the hero.”

While Schiff acknowledged that some aspects of the whistle-blower’s accusations have yet to be corroborated, he said, “In a very substantial part, this whistle-blower has already been found to be credible,” by virtue of the White House’s official record of the call.

Trump promptly tweeted that “Adam Schiff has zero credibility. Another fantasy to hurt the Republican Party.” But Schiff, whose demeanor is as low-key and unruffled as his convictions are fierce, merely smiled at reporters outside the House hearing room and replied, “I’m always flattered when I’m attacked by someone of the president’s character.”

All along, first as the committee’s ranking member and then as chairman, after the Democrats won control of the House in last year’s midterm elections, Schiff’s paramount goal has been simple, as he told me just before Mueller testified to his committee in July about his final special-counsel report.

“It is our hope that we can inform the American people of the full facts, that they can appreciate the degree to which the Russians interfered in a presidential election to help Donald Trump, the degree to which the president welcomed that help, knew it was going on … and then lied about it and covered it up,” he said. “And the degree to which those actions and his actions since continue to put us at risk, because it encourages the Russians to get involved again.”

That Trump himself is now on record as asking for just that kind of help—albeit from Russia’s bitter adversary, Ukraine—is a plot line almost too perfect to have been made up. “It’s hard to imagine a more serious set of allegations than those contained in the complaint,” Schiff told reporters after the hearing, noting that the president’s actions involved numerous potential offenses, criminal or otherwise.

Schiff noted a “deep irony” in the contrast between Maguire’s initial refusal to forward the whistle-blower’s complaint to Congress, as generally required by law, on the grounds that it did not involve actions by the intelligence community, and the whistle-blower’s accusation that the record of Trump’s call with Zelensky had been stored in a special White House computer system designed to protect the most sensitive intelligence secrets.

He vowed to continue the committee’s investigation through the upcoming congressional recess, calling witnesses, including the whistle-blower, as needed. “There is a whole host of people, apparently, who have knowledge of these events,” he said, adding that “this whistle-blower has given us a road map for our investigation.”

“We know what we have to do and, of course, we’ll be guided by the evidence that we find along the way,” he said.

Schiff’s longtime foil on the committee—Representative Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican member—was unmoved, insisting angrily near the end of the hearing, “The intelligence committee is not an appropriate place to try articles of impeachment.”

But Schiff’s own quiet summary at the hearing’s conclusion was addressed directly to the people of Ukraine, and it was succinct. “What you are seeing in the actions of this president is not democracy,” he said, then added of his own committee’s sometimes fractious work: “This is democracy.”