On Thursday morning, the soft-spoken chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-CA) seemed very angry.
His ire was perhaps understandable: Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump — both of whom have encouraged chants of “Lock her up!” about political rival Hillary Clinton — had both just publicly called for him to resign because this week he told the Washington Post “undoubtedly there is collusion” between the Trump campaign and a foreign government.
It’s a claim that Special Counsel Robert Mueller could not validate, according to Attorney General Bill Barr’s summary. Whether Schiff’s comments about collusion were accurate or not, they were reminiscent of statements Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Devin Nunes made Thursday on Fox about Clinton, accusing her of “multiple crimes” for her past use of a private mail server (an FBI review found Clinton did not commit a criminal offense).
Republicans taking the step of calling for him to resign is also part of a larger strategy to go on the offensive after the Mueller report’s limited release. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham is eager to launch investigations into whether the investigation of the campaign the FBI and the Department of Justice took part in hurt the Trump campaign in 2016.
Republicans on the Intelligence Committee went on the attack again Thursday morning, saying they didn’t believe he could lead impartially. “We have no faith in your ability to discharge your duties,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), a senior Republican member of the Intelligence Committee, told Schiff.
The Democratic chairman responded by laying out all the actions he thinks indicate there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016 — from Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner’s infamous meeting with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya to Kushner allegedly trying to establish backchannel communications with the Russians.
“I think it’s immoral, I think it’s unethical, I think it’s unpatriotic, and yes I think it’s corrupt — and evidence of collusion,” Schiff said.
SCHIFF: "You might think it's OK that [Flynn] secretly conferred with a Russian ambassador about undermining US sanctions & then lied about it to the FBI. You might say that's all OK -- that's just what you have to do to win... I think it's corrupt & evidence of collusion." pic.twitter.com/CDnyNnfWO5— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 28, 2019
According to Barr’s summary, Mueller didn’t find those actions — or any others he might have uncovered — amounted to a criminal collusion. But Democrats aren’t ready to let the matter fully drop and are calling for Mueller’s full report to be released. They’re also standing by their more outspoken members, like Schiff.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unequivocally stated her support for Schiff during her weekly press conference on Thursday.
“What would be the proper adjective? Shameful, sad, irresponsible — of the president of the United States and the Republicans on the Intelligence Committee to take the actions that they have,” Pelosi said, defending Schiff. “They’re just plain afraid. They’re afraid of the truth, they’re afraid of competence.”
With Democrats calling for Mueller’s full report to be released and Senate Republicans intent on launching investigations into the FBI, the partisan bickering around Trump and Russia won’t stop. But Schiff has suddenly found himself at the center of it.
Why Schiff is still talking about collusion
Attorney General Barr’s four-page summary of the Mueller report was released this past Sunday. While there’s still a lot we don’t yet know about what exactly Mueller found, he concluded that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Barr’s report prompted Trump and Republicans to take a victory lap, with the president insisting he was vindicated in his numerous past claims that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and the Russians.
So why won’t Schiff — a former prosecutor — stop using the phrase?
As he laid out in detail during his speech on Thursday morning, it’s because there is considerable public evidence detailing Trump campaign officials meeting with Russian nationals during the 2016 election.
“My colleagues may think it’s okay that the Russians offered dirt on the Democratic candidate for president as part of what was described as the Russian government’s effort to help the Trump campaign,” Schiff said. “My colleagues might think it’s okay that when that was offered to the son of the president — who had a pivotal role in the campaign — that the president’s son did not call the FBI, he did not adamantly refuse that foreign help. No, instead that son said he would ‘love’ the help of the Russians.”
While Schiff disagrees with Trump and Republicans’ assessment, he is also being careful not to say he disagrees with Mueller’s conclusions.
“I have always said that the question of whether this amounts to proof of conspiracy was another matter,” Schiff said on Thursday. “Whether the special counsel could prove beyond a reasonable doubt the proof of that crime would be up to the special counsel, and I would accept his decision — and I do.”
In other words, Schiff says he accepts Mueller’s decision that he couldn’t prove criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but he also believes there’s enough public evidence to show that something was going on. And he’s not done digging.
But his position also raises the question of how long Democrats are planning to hammer the Trump/Russia investigation. Pelosi reminded members earlier this week that while Democrats shouldn’t take their eye off getting the full Mueller report, they also must not lose focus on key policy issues like health care and protecting the Affordable Care Act.
Schiff has always had a tense relationship with Trump
By continuing to use the word “collusion,” Schiff is making himself a thorn in Trump’s side — but he’s always been one.
Out of all the House committee chairs, Schiff is the one with the most intense focus on Trump and Russia.
Though he hasn’t actually been chairman of the Intelligence Committee for all that long (Vice Chair Devin Nunes held the gavel when Republicans were in power), Schiff has been a key figure in congressional investigations separate from Mueller’s.
As a then-ranking member, Schiff routinely scrutinized the administration and spoke on network television about the Russia investigation, drawing the president’s anger more than once. Trump referred to him in a tweet as “little Adam Schitt” to underscore a point.
So funny to see little Adam Schitt (D-CA) talking about the fact that Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was not approved by the Senate, but not mentioning the fact that Bob Mueller (who is highly conflicted) was not approved by the Senate!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 18, 2018
As chair, Schiff always planned to probe the Trump administration intensely. Democrats believe their Republican counterparts concluded their investigation too quickly because they were trying to protect the president. (Schiff’s focus also included other aspects of Trump’s foreign policy, including his financial ties to foreign countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia.)
Schiff, with his continued comments, is now also the face that Republicans will attach to their critiques that Democrats can’t let Russia go.
“He’s been continuing to talk about collusion, and he was proven wrong,” said Conaway. “It’s about judgment, his judgment was inaccurately wrong. He’s doubled down on it.”