Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Democrats Hope Republicans Will Come Over To Go After Trump
So says Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, who predicts his GOP colleagues will come around to his way of thinking.
President Donald Trump is “dangerously naive.”
He has a “pathological unwillingness to criticize anything the Kremlin does.” He is discrediting U.S. intelligence agencies and “telling the world they can’t be believed.”
As for Trump’s refusal to disavow Russian President Vladimir Putin and the murders and poisonings of Putin critics in recent years because, as Trump put it, America has “killers” too? “I don’t think we’ve ever had a more harmful statement come out of the Oval Office than that one,” says Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, in an extensive interview for our new podcast, The Global Politico.
Schiff, a Harvard-trained lawyer who made his career by prosecuting an FBI agent caught in a sex-for-secrets trap by the Soviet Union, has been one of the leading Democrats calling for a more serious investigation of Trump’s mysterious ties to Russia. Last week, when national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after misleading the vice president about his December phone call with the Russian ambassador, Schiff quickly demanded an expansion of the House intel panel’s probe of the 2016 election hacking to include the Flynn matter, an expansion Chairman Devin Nunes reluctantly agreed to late last week.
Now, Schiff is openly suggesting a possible cover-up in the Flynn affair. “There’s a profound question about whether he was acting on his own, or whether he was acting at the behest of the now president or others in the administration,” Schiff says. “Who else was knowledgeable that he had misled the vice president, and in doing so misled the country?”
Throughout our conversation, Schiff described Russia under Putin in terms I’ve rarely heard over nearly two decades of covering U.S. relations with the Kremlin, and almost never from a Democrat in recent years, when it was largely Republicans who criticized Putin and what they saw as President Barack Obama’s reluctance to confront Russian aggression. “Russia is a major threat to the country,” Schiff says. “They are doing their best to dismantle democratic institutions in Europe, just as they did in Russia itself. And just as they tried to do in our own country, in the election ... There’s a real confrontation with a real malignant power.”
Perhaps most striking about this kind of rhetoric is who it’s coming from, and the partisan divide it heralds for American foreign policy going forward as a new generation of Russia hawks emerges. Because Schiff is new to the outrage factory, a mild-mannered sort on Capitol Hill whose Twitter feed used to be filled with polite hearing notices and the measured policy wonkiness for which he has been known. Just about every article ever written about the California Democrat, a triathlete who keeps an extreme fitness regimen, has called him some version of “a moderate’s moderate.”
But that was before Trump and his unlikely, largely unexplained, admiration for Putin. Schiff in recent months has turned his perch on the House Intelligence Committee into a newly public role as perhaps the loudest voice on Capitol Hill pushing Republicans to investigate not only the Russian hacking of the 2016 election but also just what ties Trump and his campaign advisers may have with the Russian government whose strongman leader Trump has said he admires. Schiff tells me the panel will examine “any contacts between Russia and U.S. persons” to see whether there was “any U.S. person complicity” in the 2016 election-related hacking.
But it’s not entirely clear whether the panel will actually do so—or how effective the committee will be. Schiff and other Democrats have been rebuffed in efforts to commission a special joint investigation commission and uncertain about how much cooperation they will receive from the FBI, which is conducting its own probe of the Flynn matter as well as the broader Russia hacking during the 2016 campaign. And among House Republicans, there remains resistance to looking too closely at the dealings of a president from their own party.
While Senate Republicans, under pressure from noted Russia hawks John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have sounded a tougher note about their investigation, in the House, Nunes—who served on Trump’s transition team—has been much more skeptical. At first, Nunes refused last week to broaden the probe to Flynn, saying instead that he preferred, as the president insisted, to investigate the leaks that led to the disclosures about the Flynn call. On Sunday, Nunes went on the talk shows to cast doubt on Schiff’s insistence that the panel will look at whether and how complicit any Americans tied to Trump may have been in the Russian hacking.
“We are not going to go on a witch hunt against the American people, against American citizens,” he told CBS’ John Dickerson, insisting, “as far as I know our law enforcement authorities don’t have that information.”
Wherever the unfolding investigations around Russia, Trump and Putin lead, the swirling controversy has already had one inescapable effect in American politics: the return of Cold War-style rhetoric and ominous warnings about Russia. Three straight American presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—have started out hoping to forge a closer relationship with Putin and ending up disillusioned and barely on speaking terms.
But now, with Trump calling Putin a better leader than Obama during the campaign and the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia’s election hacking was specifically aimed at boosting Trump’s chances in the presidential race, the prospects of another attempted reset of U.S.-Russia policy have taken on a darker cast. Trump acknowledged as much during his stemwinder of a news conference the other day, invoking the image of Putin observing the uproar and deciding “it’s going to be impossible for President Trump to ever get along with Russia because of all the pressure he’s got with this fake story.”
As the top Democrat on the House panel, Schiff is one of the so-called Gang of Eight, the four top leaders in both houses and four top intelligence committee members, who receive special classified briefings from the U.S. intelligence agencies that other members of Congress do not. Working together with Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel who is also part of the Gang, Schiff started sounding the alarm about Russian interference in the election early last fall.
They faced, Schiff now acknowledges, strong pushback from the Obama White House when they tried to get the administration to go public with evidence about the Russian hacking. Schiff reveals in the interview that he and Feinstein lobbied the National Security Council staff to make such a statement but were rebuffed. “There was a real reticence in the administration to talk about this publicly,” he says, especially at a time when Trump was already complaining publicly that he believed Democrats would try to rig the election for Hillary Clinton.
Instead, he and Feinstein teamed up, and on September 22, released their own statement saying there was a “serious and concerted” effort by Russia to meddle in the 2016 race—a statement confirmed by the Obama administration in October and then, after the election, by a public finding from the U.S. intelligence agencies that the hacking was aimed at electing Trump. Many Democrats today remain furious about that timetable, wondering whether Obama’s hesitant response to the hacking and unwillingness to speak out more forcefully before Nov. 8 may have inadvertently helped Trump win the presidency.
Regardless, the conversation with Schiff makes clear that there’s an entirely new politics to Russia in the U.S. today, and nowhere more so than on Capitol Hill, where historically it has been Republicans who, even long after the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, remained much more critical of Putin’s heavy-handed rule and expansionist foreign policy across the former Soviet territory.
For the most part, they still are—and when reports circulated that Trump’s White House was considering lifting some sanctions on Russia as an early executive order, it was strong pushback from Republicans on the Hill, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that helped to table, or at least delay, whatever plans there were; the subsequent furor over Flynn and his Russia entanglements makes that even less likely to proceed for now. Nunes nodded to that new reality—and probably to Schiff’s Russia warnings—in his comments to CBS. “There are Russia hawks now,” he said wryly, “I think there’s more Russia hawks in Congress than there are congressmen and senators.”
For Schiff and others in the newly-hawkish-on-Russia camp, there’s an explicit connection between Putin’s threatening moves and the rise of like-minded populist nationalists such as Trump in the United States and others in Europe. “We are in a new war of ideas, in which autocracy appears to be on the march, and we have to confront it,” he says.
So what about the Republicans who had in recent years been so quick to criticize Obama for being soft on Putin and warning of Russian imperial designs across Eastern Europe? The same party that applauded when 2012 nominee Mitt Romney labeled Russia the No. 1 geopolitical threat to the United States? Had his GOP colleagues, I asked Schiff, suddenly changed their minds about Russia now that Trump is promoting a different line?
His answer was as revealing about the state of play in Congress for President Trump as it was about anything having to do with foreign policy. And it suggests that while, for now, most of the GOP is not openly breaking with its combative new president, that may not always be the case.
“They haven’t changed their mind about Russia. I think they are as deeply distrustful as ever. They don’t want to cross this president yet,” Schiff says of his Republican colleagues. “They have no illusions about Vladimir Putin; none of them think he’s a friend. They all recognize the great evil that he’s doing bombing civilians in Aleppo, invading his neighbors, murdering journalists. So, I don’t think they have any new view—I don’t think they’ve been persuaded by Donald Trump that somehow Russia is now our friend.”