Rep. Schiff reveals impeachment regrets, tensions on Capitol Hill after insurrection

Oct 10, 2021
Originally published on October 10, 2021 9:58 pm

Nine months after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., says the Capitol is a "different place."

"I think the relationships that we had with our [GOP] colleagues before that day, which were already fraying, reached a real breaking point," Schiff, who made the case for President Donald Trump's impeachment at the first trial in 2020, told NPR's Michel Martin.

He said that even relationships with Republican colleagues that had previously been amicable are now compromised, including with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Even after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Schiff thought the country might turn a corner, but "that flickering of conscience within the GOP lasted about 30 seconds for Kevin McCarthy," he said.

"Our country needs to know what a danger it would be for him ever to set foot anywhere near the Speaker's office. Someone who has no compunction about dishonesty, who will do whatever the former president says or wants cannot be trusted with that kind of power," Schiff said.

Schiff's new book, Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could, gives background on what the lawmaker might have done differently during Trump's first impeachment, the significance of the trial and how it changed the political landscape in Washington.


Interview highlights

On regretting that he asked special prosecutor Robert Mueller to testify about the investigation into interference in the 2016 election

I did understand immediately why his staff had been so protective and why they were so reluctant to have him testify. And I immediately told our members, "We need to cut down our questions. We can't ask for narrative answers. We need to be very precise in what we ask. We need to have the page references of the report ready." And it was painful, honestly, it was painful. And if I had known, I would not have pushed for his testimony.

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On whether he would change anything about his own performance leading up to and during the impeachment in which the president was accused of trying to pressure Ukrainian leaders to aid Trump's political agenda

I think the parody [of Trump's call with the Ukrainian president] that I did was unnecessary. Now the president created a whole fictional narrative about it, claiming that I had advanced knowledge of the record of that conversation. But when I think back, would anything that I did differently have changed the result? Obviously, it's hard for me to be objective about this. It took a bloody insurrection to get even a few Republicans to support impeachment. That's a pretty horribly high bar to have to wait for even a small group of Republicans to honor their constitutional oath.

On how he understands new polling data that shows Trump is viewed favorably by 53% of Iowa voters

We are a much more tribal, polarized society. The information that we get now is curated for us by algorithms that don't show us anything we don't want to see, reinforce the views that we already have. ... That allows him and his supporters to live in a different world. And that is among the most consequential, far-reaching and difficult challenges that we face.

On the moments when he thinks the Republican Party started to change, even before Trump

There were a number of canaries in the coal mine, and in fact, some of them even predated Trump. When, for example, [Republican leader] Mitch McConnell, who was viewed as an institutionalist, was willing to withhold a Obama appointment to the Supreme Court, was willing to essentially render a coequal branch of government, the Supreme Court, just a political plaything to help him mobilize his base. That was a sign that things were changing. When, in North Carolina in 2016, a Democrat won the governor's office and the Republican legislature responded, not by trying to do better the next time or change its backward policies, but stripping that governor of his powers. That told us something was happening in the American body politic.

On what shocked him during the impeachment trial

What shocked me during the trial was the realization, as I listened to some of these [GOP] senators, that they understood the president was guilty. They recognized that he was guilty. They were surprised by the abundance of evidence. ... They only knew what they knew from watching Fox. But even when confronted with this evidence, it wasn't enough to move them to give meaning to their oath, because it might cost them in their job or it might cost them a position in the Cabinet. And there was nothing they treasured quite so much as those things.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Congressman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, became a household name and a fixture in national headlines as a lead manager during President Trump's first impeachment trial. That's the one focused on the now infamous pressure campaign on Ukraine, seeking that country's help in discrediting Trump's political opponents. Now Congressman Schiff is out with a new book that offers his insider's take on that entire episode, what prompted the trial, the trial itself and what followed. But it's also a meditation on how this country's politics have been transformed in a direction the lawmaker sees as toxic and dangerous to the country's future. It's called "Midnight In Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy And Still Could."

We spoke recently at a private residence on Capitol Hill here in Washington, D.C. The conversation was held outdoors so we could meet in person but observe COVID safety protocols. I began where he starts the book, with the mob attack on the Capitol on January 6. I asked him how that attack changed things on the Capitol, where he continues to work.

ADAM SCHIFF: It's a different place than it was before January 6. And I think the relationships that we had with our colleagues before that day, which were already fraying, reached a real breaking point. It was an astonishment that even after people attacked the Capitol and beat police and put our lives in danger, that they had attacked the citadel of democracy, that immediately after our Republican colleagues were back on the House floor, back in a chamber with the windows still broken, with blood outside the chamber where Ashli Babbitt had been shot - still trying to decertify the election as if nothing had happened.

MARTIN: You have some choice words for some of your colleagues. It - I think people who watched the impeachment proceedings, particularly the first impeachment trial where you were the lead impeachment manager, will know that you were very careful to avoid certain words. Like, you didn't use the word lying, particularly when it comes to your colleagues. But you don't hesitate in this book to say that some of the people you serve with just lie, including the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy. You say, in the book, that he just lies and that you have a personal experience with this. I'm just interested in why - what was your - why do you feel it's important to say that?

SCHIFF: The country needs to know what a danger it would be for him ever to set foot anywhere near the speaker's office. Someone who has no compunction about dishonesty, who, in this case, will do whatever the former president says or wants cannot be trusted with that kind of power, just can't be. Our democracy is hanging by a thread. It is a marvel to me that in four short years, a deeply flawed human being could completely remake the Republican Party in his image and so many of our institutions could be broken down, so many of what we thought were inviolate norms could be violated with impunity - that that person could be a serious candidate for president again is an astonishment. But part of the genius - the evil genius of Donald Trump was to inject poison in the American body politic, to create such animosity and division that he could do anything and say anything and still retain the support of his base.

MARTIN: You seem to continue to be - I don't know if the word is shocked - certainly disappointed, dismayed by the fact that the Senate did not act upon impeachment when it had the chance. If the Senate had chosen to impeach then, then you wouldn't have needed the second impeachment. Then there would not have been the January 6 insurrection. But I think a lot of people wonder, given what you say you know about your colleagues and the direction that the Republican Party, in your view, has taken, did you really think the Senate was going to convict? Did you really believe that that was a possibility? Or was there some other reason to go through all of that?

SCHIFF: I went into that trial knowing that we were very likely going to lose. In fact, I remember having a private meeting with the speaker when she asked me to lead the impeachment, saying that we were going to lose this trial. And the challenge was, the question was, how do we win by losing?

And it was my sense that the only way we could win by losing is if we recognized that there were two juries we were trying the case to. We were trying it to the 100 senators, in particular, the four that we thought might have an open mind. And we were trying it to the American people and, in particular, the 40 million Americans who we thought had an open mind. The four and the 40 million, I kept talking to my fellow managers about.

And the impeachment, I think, even though we failed to convict and we couldn't avoid the terrible insurrection that was to come, was enormously important in two respects - first, that we did our constitutional duty. Had we not done our constitutional duty, it would have said, these acts are now to be expected of a president. They are compatible with office. You can cheat in elections. You can seek foreign help in elections. You can withhold money, hundreds of millions of military aid from an ally at war with the Russians to help you reelection, to help you cheat. And all of that just comes with the territory.

So it was important that we do our duty. It was also important that we expose the president's misconduct to the American people. And I would like to think that by exposing his misconduct as we did, it influenced the voters to reject him when they had the chance.

MARTIN: You say you now regret having called the former FBI director, Robert Mueller, to testify about the findings of his special investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. I don't think there's any dispute that his testimony, his - the report was one thing, but his testimony itself was disjointed - I don't want to say incoherent, but difficult to follow. Do you think that he was experiencing cognitive decline at that time?

SCHIFF: This was one of the most difficult parts for me to write in the book because I remember so vividly being in the intelligence committee. I had asked all the members to join me in the committee to watch the Judiciary Committee hearing that immediately preceded ours. So Mueller was testifying in the Judiciary Committee. And then immediately after, he was going to be a witness in our committee. And I had written to him a personal note when he was very resistant to testifying, telling him that he was an incredible public servant, but he had one more duty to perform, and that was speak to the American people. And I watched in utter shock at the changes that had been wrought. He is, I think, one of the greatest public servants, a decorated Vietnam veteran, a man with impeccable integrity who served as FBI director and distinguished himself in every way. But he was not the same man I knew.

MARTIN: If he was experiencing cognitive decline, should he have been in charge of that investigation?

SCHIFF: I can't answer that. But I did understand immediately why his staff had been so protective and why they were so reluctant to have him testify. And I immediately told our members we need to cut down our questions. We can't ask for narrative answers. We need to be very precise in what we ask. We need to have the page references of the report ready. And it was painful. Honestly, it was painful. And I - if I had known, I would not have pushed for his testimony.

MARTIN: The question is, why didn't you know?

SCHIFF: I think that - because of this real protective instinct among the people around him. It was difficult for them to convey. Now, we did get some inkling as we negotiated over the format of the hearing that we were better off with shorter periods of questioning. And - so there were signs. But I didn't know whether to believe some of the public rumors because President Trump had an incentive to malign Bob Mueller. And people around him were maligning him in all kinds of false and terrible ways.

MARTIN: You have reflected on this. And obviously, there are all kinds of details that, you know, people who followed the process closely will remember. When you've thought about the whole thing, is there anything you would have done differently?

SCHIFF: Were there things along the way that I regret? Yes, absolutely. And...

MARTIN: Like what?

SCHIFF: Well, I think the parody that I did was unnecessary. Now, the president created a whole fictional narrative about it, claiming that I had advanced knowledge of the record of that conversation. And - but nonetheless, it wasn't necessary.

And - but when I think back, would anything that I did differently have changed the result? What I think most about is whether there was anything that I could have done to keep the committee conducting its investigation in a bipartisan way, to increase the likelihood of a bipartisan result in the House. And I have to say - and, obviously, it's hard for me to be objective about this - it took a bloody insurrection to get even a few Republicans to support impeachment. So that's a pretty horribly high bar to have to wait for even a small group of Republicans to honor their constitutional oath.

MARTIN: Tomorrow on Morning Edition, the second part of my interview with Congressman Adam Schiff. We'll hear more about his thoughts, about his Republican colleagues, and what's keeping him hopeful in spite of the dangers that he says remain. Just ask your smart speaker to play NPR or your member station by name. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.