President Donald Trump’s political life will drastically change come Jan. 3 when Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in the 116th Congress. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes part of Pasadena, will become the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. A former federal prosecutor, Schiff has vowed to follow up on the leads in the Russia investigation that Republicans ignored when they were the majority in the House.
The day after the election, Trump essentially fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him with loyalist Matt Whitaker, who has criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Schiff called Whitaker “Trump’s Roy Cohn,” a reference to the combative lawyer for both Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the communist witch hunts of the 1950s, and for Trump in the 1970s. Schiff wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Nov. 12 that Whitaker’s appointment “represents the president’s most direct challenge yet to the rule of law. The new Democratic majority will protect the special counsel and the integrity of the Justice Department.”
On Nov. 18, Trump tweeted, “So funny to see little Adam Schitt [sic] 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!”
Special counsels do not need to be approved by the Senate, but attorneys general do, per the Constitution. Last week, Trump nominated former Attorney General William Barr to return to the position. Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigation is picking up speed with recent sentencing memos filed on Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
“There’s a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him,” Schiff said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “He may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.”
Schiff recently spoke with the Pasadena Weekly to discuss the new power dynamic in Washington, how Democrats plan to hold the Trump administration accountable and what’s next for the Russia investigation.
Pasadena Weekly: What message do you think voters sent on Election Day?
Rep. Adam Schiff: They sent a message that they want to place a check and balance on this administration. They want Congress to be focused on bread and butter issues, like how families make ends meet and keeping the cost of health care within reason. But also that they don’t want this president to have unrestricted power, that he’s just too unstable and too inclined to tear up the foundations of our democratic institutions.
What are your main priorities when Democrats take control of the House, and what can they get done with control of just one branch?
Our first priority is going to be to offer a positive agenda for the country that addresses the economic changes that are going on, that makes sure more Americans have an opportunity to live the American Dream, that brings down the cost of prescription drugs. But I also think that we’re going to need to do oversight that has been lacking for the last two years. There’s not a great expectation that our legislative agenda will get through the Senate, but we do want to be able to show the country the priorities that we have if they entrust us with the full government in 2020. On the oversight side of things, there are numerable allegations of corruption and malfeasance within the administration. We’re going to have to prioritize; we aren’t going to be able to look into everything that has come to our attention. We’ll have to look at the most serious matters first. It’s everything from the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia to the president’s potential efforts to use the instruments of state power to censor the press by raising postal rates on Amazon to go after the Washington Post, to holding up the merger of CNN’s parent to punish CNN, to violations of the emolument clause. We just saw reports yesterday of how much the Saudis were spending at Trump hotels to curry favor with the Trump administration. There are a whole range of important oversight priorities.
What can Democrats, Republicans and the Trump administration work together on in the New Year?
The country could badly use an investment in infrastructure. That would be good for the economy, it would help put Americans back to work, it would certainly help repair a lot of our decaying roads and bridges and highways and renewable energy infrastructure and airports, and that ought to be completely nonpartisan. So that’s a fruitful area to work together. The president at times has indicated interest in working to bring the cost of prescription drugs down. If he’s willing to buck some of the people in his own administration to work with Democrats on it, we can find common ground there. There are any number of opportunities for us to get things done for the American people. I hope the president will be open to doing that.
What are some of the leads or witnesses in the Russia investigation that the Republicans refused to follow up on that you will follow up on come January?
One that I’m particularly concerned about is the allegations that the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization. We know the Trump Organization was lying about its efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, efforts that continued through the middle of 2016, and efforts in which the Trump Organization sought to enlist the help of the Kremlin and offer Putin a penthouse suite, reportedly, but we don’t know whether the financial ties are much broader than that. If the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization that would be powerful leverage they would have over the president of the United States. So that certainly is a priority. There are any number of investigative threads that we were pursuing when the Republicans abruptly ended their participation in the investigation, so we want to make sure the job is done with thoroughness.
Have you seen any indication that the acting attorney general has interfered with the Mueller investigation, and are you worried that Bill Barr will interfere if he is confirmed?
We have no visibility into what role Whitaker is playing, and that’s of grave concern. He auditioned for the part by bashing the Mueller investigation and talking about how he can secretly suffocate the investigation. We will work hard to expose any involvement that he has as long as he’s with the Justice Department. In terms of Barr, he’s made some concerning remarks about not only the Mueller team but also he’s given credence to the president’s efforts to prosecute his political rivals and reopen the Uranium One investigation. Those things are deeply concerning, but I don’t put Barr in the same category as Whitaker. Barr is plainly qualified and has already been attorney general; he was a fairly mainstream and conservative attorney general. Were it not for the concerning comments he’s made about the Mueller investigation and the Clinton investigation, I would have far fewer reservations. But these are things that need to be explored during his confirmation hearings.
What can Democrats do to protect the Mueller investigation?
Once we get the gavel, we’ll be able to bring Whitaker before Congress and demand to find out what role he has played in the Mueller investigation, whether he was given and is abiding by an ethics opinion from the Justice Department, whether he’s shared any information he has gleaned about the investigation with the president or the president’s lawyers. He’s going to have to answer all of those questions and more. We ought to take up and pass legislation to protect Mueller, but that’s something that the Senate majority leader has refused to do. We’re going to try to get that done as part of our final budget talks, but I don’t know how optimistic to be about that. We can certainly end the attacks on the integrity of the Justice Department and the FBI that have come out of the House Intelligence Committee during the Nunes period. That will stop in January.
Do you think Mueller is delaying submitting his final report to the Justice Department until the Democrats have taken control of the House in January, or is the investigation just ongoing? Will House Democrats use their subpoena power to try to force the Trump administration to make the report public, if it is suppressed?
I don’t think his timing is determined by the change in the majority. I think there are other factors at work that are influencing the timing, including potentially the appointment of Whitaker may have accelerated the timetable. There are certain things that we should be doing to assist the Mueller investigation, and the Republicans have refused. We will certainly have to take that up in January, that is, we will be making the interview transcripts of our witnesses [before the House Intelligence Committee] available to Mueller for consideration as to whether witnesses should be charged with perjury. That may or may not influence the timing of charging decisions with respect to some of the subjects of the investigation. In terms of whether the report will be made public, I think we ought to make as much public as possible. We should be as transparent as possible. This is simply too important to be swept under the rug. It’s going to be the responsibility of Congress to make sure there is a full accounting.
It seems like if any other president had done what we already know this president has done they would be impeached. What is it going to take to hold this president accountable? And have you seen or do you know of evidence that the president, his family members, or his inner circle have committed wrongdoing?
What we are seeing every day as the president continues to attack the Mueller investigation and dangle pardons in front of potentially cooperating witnesses or a harsh sentence for those who testify against him, is that he is willfully trying to interfere in the investigation and he’s doing it in broad daylight. The effect of that is to numb the public to just what a breach of the democratic norms of office we are seeing. Ultimately, for an impeachment to be successful it will need to be bipartisan, otherwise you might be able to impeach the president in the House but you’ll never be able to convict him in the Senate. What it will take is we will have to wait and see what Mueller reports. His conclusion and the evidence of that report would have to be sufficient to convince the country that the president’s conduct was so incompatible with the office that he needed to be removed. That’s a very high bar, and it’s properly a high bar under any circumstance because it’s an extraordinary remedy. It would require a great many Americans around the country to view the president’s conduct not through a partisan lens, but through the lens of whether what he’s doing is consistent with our Constitution. We simply have to wait and see what Mueller produces and then determine what the consequences should be.
What’s next for you? Are you going to run for president?
What’s next for me is really getting to work on the parts of this investigation the Republicans were unwilling to undertake and providing a check on this president. Whatever comes after that, I don’t know at this point. I’ve got more than enough on my plate as it is.