With a customary demonstration of his dignity in office, President Trump shoveled out Tweets characterizing Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) as “shifty Schiff,” “pencil neck,” chief perpetrator of a “witch hunt,” and a fraud. Soon, Schiff required a security detail, with his spouse and children wondering if they should move out of the house and stay with relatives.
Schiff was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee as it conducted the first impeachment inquiry of our 45th President. And today, the 11-term lawmaker sits on the select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. As they escaped the mob, colleagues urged Schiff to hide his face, saying “You can’t let them see you.”
In Midnight in Washington: How we almost lost our democracy (Random House, $30), Schiff gives an inside-D.C. history of the nightmare years 2017-21. The book was made possible by the COVID-19 pandemic, which confined Schiff at home giving him time to reflect, ruminate, and write.
“You’re really in his head,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Schiff, explaining the torrent of abuse from Trump. The 45th president was, Schiff writes, a “xenophobic autocrat” with neither knowledge nor respect for the limits of power. What astounded Schiff, however, were Trump’s enablers. He watched for four years “as people I knew and respected, had good relationships with, step-by-step succumbed to the immorality of this president.” As he told Rolling Stone in a recent interview, “That’s how democracies come to an end.”
In Schiff’s view, the Republican Party has evolved into “an anti-democratic cult organized around the former president” and has succumbed to “a dangerous trend of autocratic thought.” Dissenters, such as the 10 House Republicans who voted for the second impeachment, are hunted down. “Two down, eight to go,” Trump commented last week when Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) said he would not seek reelection.
As House Minority Leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), will become House Speaker if Republicans win control in the 2022 midterms. McCarthy had a moment of honesty in January; “Nothing like a mob chanting ‘Hang Pence’ to focus the mind.” Since then, however, he has gone fawning to Mar a Lago and marked for purge such truth tellers as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.)
Schiff relates a telling anecdote. The two California House colleagues shared a plane ride to D.C. in 2010. McCarthy has long related their conversation in fashion unfavorable to Schiff. Schiff challenged his colleague, saying: “You know I said the opposite of what you tell the press.” To which McCarthy replied: “I know, Adam, but you know how it goes.”
Schiff had a “reverence” for Robert Mueller. The Special Counsel’s investigation concluded there was evidence to support an obstruction of justice charge but made no recommendation. Attorney General Bill Barr hijacked the Mueller report before its release, saying it contained no evidence of criminal behavior. Mueller did not respond or object. Schiff found “heartbreaking” his subsequent fumbling testimony before Congress. “Had I known how much he had changed, I would not have pursued his testimony with such vigor. I fact, I would not have pressed it at all.”
Midnight in Washington has heroes, truth tellers who came forward in the face of intimidation. Schiff praises ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovich, who did not do Rudy Giuliani’s bidding and would not go along with Trump’s arms-for-smears (against Joe and Hunter Biden) demands. The second is Lt. Col. (ret.) Alexander Vindman, who testified to what he heard in phone calls between Trump and the president of Ukraine . . . and was removed from his National Security Council job and escorted out of the White House.
Xenophobic autocrats should be fearful of meticulous people. Schiff weaves background material on how he ended up in harm’s way and a target of Trump Tweets. Once, as a federal prosecutor, he went through three trials before securing the conviction of former FBI agent Richard Miller on charges of spying for Russia.
He’s figured in three impeachments. In 2000, Schiff defeated Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.), one of the Republican floor managers of the Clinton impeachment. He initially waffled when asked by party leaders to run for Congress. “You’re going to do it,” said wife Eve. “I don’t know,” he replied. She had the last word, “Yes, you do. You’re going to do it.” Eve is a figure of consequence in the book.
The Schiff book does not just serve up juicy details on all the President’s enablers; the reader gets a feel for the character needed and pressure that must be endured to challenge abuse of power. The Washington, D.C., of Donald Trump was an undrained swamp. In times past, ethically motivated Republicans played crucial roles in toppling Sen. Joe McCarthy and removing Richard Nixon from the presidency. Such folk are now an endangered species.
Schiff remains convinced the 2016 Trump campaign colluded with Russian intelligence, supplying polling data helpful to anybody targeting a disinformation campaign. He feels that lawyer Michael Cohen’s negotiations on a possible Trump Tower on Moscow could have given the Russians leverage over the future president.
Schiff also marvels at the ineptitude of our 45th president, which blocked evil deeds culminating with Trump’s bid to overturn an election he lost by 7 million votes. Where Russia was concerned, however, Trump proved to be – to use a phrase attributed to Lenin – a useful idiot. When Trump “did become President,” writes Schiff, “there would be no need for the Kremlin to blackmail him into betraying America’s interests. To a remarkable degree, he would prove more than willing to do that on his own.”
Our republic remains in danger.