We Almost Lost Our Democracy – and Still Could: A Conversation with Congressman Adam Schiff
tags: Capitol Riot,January 6 Commission,Adam Schiff
Congressman Adam Schiff
Freedom is not assured. It is, as ever, something we have to fight for every day. So let us fight. Unlike Trump’s violent insurrectionists, our weapon of choice must be the truth, wielded relentlessly.
Congressman Adam Schiff, Midnight in Washington
Over the past five years, California Congressman Adam Schiff has been one of the foremost defenders of the rule of law and American democracy as he has exposed the autocratic presidency of Donald Trump and the evolution of the Republican Party from a home for voters with conservative values to “an antitruth, antidemocratic cult organized around the former president.”
In his powerful and engaging new book Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could (Random House), Congressman Schiff offers an account of the Trump presidency from the perspective of Capitol Hill. He relates how close the Trump regime came to ending our democracy, and he warns about how our system remains imperiled by a Republican party that embraces Trump’s big lie about winning the 2020 election and then uses false claims of voter fraud to adopt a “new generation of Jim Crow laws targeting minority populations and seeking to cut off their access to the polls.”
The revelatory book begins on one of the darkest days in our history: January 6, 2021, when a violent mob of hundreds of Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 election of President Joe Biden. Congressman Schiff vividly describes the chaos in the US House Chamber as the rioters breached the building. The deadly assault by Trump-inspired insurrectionists left several dead and more than 140 police officers injured. This act of domestic terrorism stunned many members of Congress, including Congressman Schiff, who was well aware of the danger posed by Trump as he and his allies presumed they were above the law.
Midnight in Washington records Congressman Schiff’s own story of how he chose a life of public service and loyalty to the rule of law. Schiff, who has served in Congress since 2001, was famously known for working across party lines for needed legislation. He was seen as a collaborative figure, not a rigid partisan, but his ability to deal with the other side ended with era of Trump.
Congressman Schiff’s fearless efforts to expose the lawlessness of the Trump regime have won admiration of his party as well as scholars and many independents, but he has drawn the ire and juvenile mockery of the ex-president, unrelenting denunciation from many congressional Republicans, and constant threats to himself and his family from rightwing fanatics.
In his cautionary account of recent years, Midnight in Washington, Congressman Schiff proves an engaging and gifted storyteller. In lively prose, he brings the reader inside his experiences with the congressional investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and his role as lead investigator and House manager in the first impeachment and trial of Trump for threatening to withhold approved military aid to Ukraine unless the embattled nation interfered in the 2020 presidential election by supplying negative information on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Congressman Schiff’s book is certain to become an invaluable resource for scholars of our recent history and has been praised by historians such as Michael Beschloss and Ron Chernow. Acclaimed professor of history Timothy Snyder—an expert on democracy and tyranny—commented on Midnight: “If there is still an American democracy fifty years from now, historians will be very grateful for this highly personal and deeply informed guide to one of its greatest crises. We should be grateful that we can read it now.”
Congressman Schiff has been the United States Representative for California’s 28th Congressional District since 2000. In his role as Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, he led the first impeachment of Donald J. Trump stemming from the Trump–Ukraine scandal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi then named him the lead House impeachment manager at the helm of a team of seven House members responsible for presenting the impeachment case against Trump during his trial before the United States Senate. Congressman Schiff is also a member of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.
Congressman Schiff graciously talked by telephone about his work and his new book from his office.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Congressman Schiff on your powerful new book on how we almost lost our democracy, Midnight in Washington. And thank you for taking time from your hectic schedule to speak with me.
I have a special appreciation for your work on the Select Committee on the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Full disclosure: I was an attorney with the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late seventies. I realize that investigative select committees pose special challenges for members of Congress, and I respect your persistence and passion with this investigation now in the face of constant vilification and threats from the right. It must be difficult for you.
Congressman Adam Schiff: It has been an ordeal, but I work with a great group of members and the staff is terrific. And it's very much a team effort.
Robin Lindley: The deadly January 6th assault on the Capitol was heartbreaking for me. I love that marvelous old edifice, the symbolic center of our democracy where I worked and where you now work. As we watched the live-televised, violent attack on the Capitol, I told my wife not to worry because the mob of insurrectionists wouldn’t get into the building. I said the National Guard would intercede and assured her that Guard units were probably on hand in the Capitol basement or in nearby office buildings. But that didn’t happen, and I know the select committee is looking into that now.
Congressman Adam Schiff: Yes, we sure are. And, ironically the January 6th Committee is a really bright spot in an otherwise pretty dark place in that we are working in a completely nonpartisan way with two conservative Democrats and two conservative Republicans among our ranks. There's no division in our purpose. We're all united in wanting to get to the truth and expose the truth to the American people and then legislate in a way that protects our country going forward.
Robin Lindley: What was your experience when the Capitol was attacked? In your book, you recount that you helped people get to safety, but you didn’t realize the danger you were in until Republican members of Congress told you to protect yourself.
Congressman Adam Schiff: Yes. I really hadn't been paying attention to what was going on outside the Capitol. I was speaking that morning and I was preparing my rebuttals for what the Republicans were saying. I knew they would be challenging electors in up to six states, and so I had written a bunch of opening statements and a few rebuttals to take into consideration what was being said very specifically.
And so I wasn't paying attention to events on the Mall. And I only noticed that things were awry when I looked up and saw that the Speaker was not in her chair. And then I watched police come in and quickly usher [Congressman and House Majority Leader] Steny Hoyer out of the chamber.
Then the police made increasingly dire warnings to the members that rioters were in the building, that we needed to get out our gas masks, and finally, that we needed to get out of the chamber.
I did hang back, in part because I felt reasonably calm and I could see how agitated other people were. And there was a bottleneck to get out of the House chamber. I remember thinking to myself that it was surprising because only 40 members were allowed to be present on the floor because of COVID with a number of others permitted in the gallery. But people must have come from other places and suddenly it was very crowded. I also didn’t want to go through the doors shoulder to shoulder with a number of Republicans who refused to wear masks. This was pre- vaccination.
And some of those Republicans came up to me and told me that I needed to make sure that the attackers didn't see me because I was in different category. And of course, I understood exactly what they were saying. And I had that strange reaction that I wrote about in the book, at first feeling touched by their help and then quite angered about the reason I was at risk was because they had been lying about the election lying and about me too but, in particular, about their lies about the election, which caused this attack on the Capitol.
Robin Lindley: Most Congressional Republicans, including those who seemed interested in your safety, continue to embrace Trump’s big lie that he won the election.
Congressman Adam Schiff: And yes, after our session that night, and in the weeks that followed and to the present day, they have persisted in this big lie and in undermining our election system and questioning its integrity. And it's really an inducement to further violence. After seeing where that led, to continue with that lie is an even more willful assault on our democracy.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate your courage at this fraught time and your service on the Select Committee on the January 6th attack on democracy. I don’t know many details, but I understand that the Committee is working intensely to understand every aspect of the attack on the Capitol and its making progress each day.
Congressman Adam Schiff: Thank you. We are moving with great diligence. We have interviewed now over 300 people and those are cooperating witnesses. Of course, there are very high-profile exceptions who are employing many of the same tactics that Trump used while in office by suing to avoid complying with the law in the hope of delay, in the hope that justice delayed can be justice denied. But we're moving quickly to hold them in criminal contempt and we hope and expect that the Justice Department will also move quickly to prosecute these people.
Robin Lindley: Steve Bannon and Mark Meadows are two notable examples of those held in contempt. On another issue, could the Constitution and federal law be used to prevent former President Trump and his insurrectionist allies in Congress from holding public office again? What would trigger section three of the 14th amendment or 18 US Code at section 2383, for example, regarding preclusion of those who commit insurrection from holding office?
Congressman Adam Schiff: Yes, it's a good question. We’ve discussed that internally and I've discussed it with constitutional experts. I'm not sure that I have a clear answer to that question. I think it was last used during Reconstruction and I don't think it's ever been used to prohibit someone from seeking the presidency again. The short answer is, as with many other things that have come to light in the last four years, it’s an open constitutional question.
Robin Lindley: I wanted to go back to your story Congressman Schiff. You are guided by an impressive public service ethic. You graduated from Harvard Law School and you could have worked at a very lucrative job at a prestigious law firm. Instead, you devoted your life to public service, first as an Assistant US Attorney, then as a legislator in California, and now as a member of Congress. Where did your values of selfless service and working for the common good come from?
Congressman Adam Schiff: I really think they come from my parents, and they would tell you that they came from their parents. My folks instilled in me and my brother an ethic of service and an ethic of leaving a world better off for the next generation. We also had the confidence of knowing that, if we could be good at something and we could make our living, we could get by, and that there are more important things than material wealth, and doing a service for others was something of great importance. And so in my case, that came from my folks and from my grandparents as well.
Robin Lindley: You’ve been in Congress for two decades and you were known as a person with a collaborative spirit who worked across the aisle. But it seems that compromise and bipartisanship haven’t been possible with the other party since Trump became president.
Congressman Adam Schiff: That's very true. And that’s something that I have to explain to people who only know me from the last few years. I had a very different reputation from the perception of the Trump years.
Before Trump, I was not viewed as a partisan. Indeed, I don't view myself as a partisan. And I don't think opposition to authoritarianism or corruption of the variety that Donald Trump represents is partisan. I think you can see that in some very conservative Republicans such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger who feel the same way. Certainly no one would've described me as a lightning rod of any kind including a liberal lightning rod. But if you stand up to Donald Trump, then you become public enemy number one in MAGA world. And that's certainly made it much more difficult for me to work across the aisle on things having nothing to do with the former president.
That work still goes on. We produced the intelligence authorization goals in my committee that passed in the committee on a bipartisan basis for years now, even with my differences with [Republican Congressman Devin] Nunez. But, as long as Donald Trump is on the scene and as long as the Republican party leadership has given up its devotion to our democracy and made itself a kind of cult of the former president, there's no accommodating that.
And there's no accommodating a Republican party that doesn't believe in our democracy anymore as its priority on a whole set of issues. They're just going to have to be beaten at the polls. There are still areas where we can work together, but not on the big issues that affect our democracy such as voting rights, as [Democratic Senator] Joe Manchin is finding out the hard way. There's no accommodating them because their goals are completely different. Their goal is to tear down our democratic system in the hopes of gaining power and keeping it.
Robin Lindley: One of your legislative efforts to strengthen democracy is the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which recently passed in the House. That Act would address presidential abuse of power, separation of powers, and foreign interference in elections. That seems an important development.
Congressman Adam Schiff: That came from a discussion I had with Speaker Pelosi a couple years ago where I suggested that we fashion our own sort of post-Watergate reform to attack the many abuses of power that weakened the guardrails of democracy and that had been exposed to us for years. And so that's what we put together. Many of the pieces have had Republican support in the past, and they probably enjoy Republican support now, particularly since we have a Democratic president. But so many of the Republicans are just too scared. This too we learned in the last four years that, while courage may be contagious, cowardice is too, and there has been an epidemic of cowardice among the leadership of the GOP.
Robin Lindley: Many people I talk with fear for the future of our democracy. Where do you find hope today?
Congressman Adam Schiff: I entitled the book Midnight in Washington in part because that was the part of one of my closing arguments in the trial, but also because midnight may be the darkest hour of the day everywhere in the world, but it's also a hopeful time because we know that what follows is the prospect of light.
I have every confidence we're going to get through this. I derive that confidence from some of the heroic people that have emerged over the last several years: the [former US ambassador to Yugoslavia] Marie Yovanovitches, the [director for European Affairs for the National Security Council, Lt. Col.] Alexander Vindmans, the [former senior director for Europe and Russia on the NSA] Fiona Hills, even the [former Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coatses, and others, who risked their careers to stand up to this most unethical president as defenders of democracy. There are millions and millions more like them around the country who far outnumber those who are trying to tear down democracy right now.
So, we're getting through it. But I do think what we do in this moment will determine how quickly we get through it and how much damage we're forced to suffer along the way.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments Congressman Schiff and congratulations again on your powerful book, a wake-up call for America. And thank you for your work in Congress and your steadfast commitment to our democracy.
Congressman Adam Schiff: Thank you, Robin. And thank you for your interest in the book and for reaching out.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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