‘This president, he’s like a planetary object,” Adam Schiff said. “He warps time. And things that you think happened a couple weeks ago, it turns out, only happened a day or two ago.”
Schiff was slumped in a chair in his Washington office, tie askew and eyebrows ruffled, as if he’d been kneading his forehead. It was a little past 5:30 p.m. on the first Friday of October, the end of a week that, Schiff thought, “has been like three years compressed into a week.”
This was true for anyone who had merely tried to follow the news, but it was especially true for Schiff, who was at the center of it. Ten days earlier, on Sept. 24, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives — who had spent much of the year trying to rein in the growing number of House Democrats who wanted to impeach President Trump — stood in the Capitol in front of a row of American flags and announced that the House was moving forward with an “official impeachment inquiry.” Soon after, she announced that Schiff, a California representative and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, would be leading the investigation.
The decisive event had proved to be a whistle-blower complaint from a member of the intelligence community, the existence of which was made public on Sept. 13, when Schiff issued a subpoena to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. Schiff’s letter accompanying the subpoena was vague about the substance of the whistle-blower’s complaint, because Schiff himself didn’t know what the substance was; Maguire had refused to turn the complaint over to the congressional intelligence committees, as was required by law. But after Schiff’s subpoena, reporters discovered that the complaint claimed that Trump had abused his power by pressuring President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate the Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter and thus interfere in the 2020 elections.
Schiff moved quickly, calling Maguire in front of the Intelligence Committee for a public hearing and, together with the chairmen of other committees, subpoenaing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani; the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney; and others for documents related to the Ukraine matter. Of most consequence, Schiff began summoning current and former Trump-administration officials for closed-door depositions in the Intelligence Committee’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) — a secure, bunkerlike office where the committee does its work, three floors below the Capitol Visitor Center.
That Friday afternoon, Schiff had just emerged from the SCIF, where he spent the previous seven hours hearing testimony from the intelligence-community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, whose job it had been to corroborate the whistle-blower complaint; Atkinson thought it was “urgent” and “appeared credible.” The day before, Schiff presided over more than nine hours of testimony from Kurt D. Volker, who until his abrupt resignation the previous week was the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine. Volker turned over incriminating text messages between himself and other diplomats that appear to show that the president was trying to use $391 million in security aid to Ukraine and a White House meeting with Zelensky as leverage to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens and other Democrats. The White House had by then released a “reconstructed” transcript of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, in which Trump asked for such an investigation.
“The information is coming fast and furious,” Schiff said. Earlier, he told me: “We have learned more in two weeks about the president’s personal role in seeking foreign assistance with Ukraine than we did in the two years the Mueller team investigated his efforts to get help from Russia.”
As a result, Schiff, who is 59, has rapidly come to occupy a unique and privileged place in the Democratic firmament. His Ukraine investigation has now been invested with all the hopes and dreams that Democrats once placed in the special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. In Schiff, a 10-term congressman from the Los Angeles area, Democrats believe they have found a more reliable vessel than the cipherlike Mueller and an opportunity for a do-over of sorts. While Mueller allowed himself to become a punching bag — remaining silent for two years as Trump relentlessly delegitimized his investigation as a “witch hunt” — Schiff has no qualms about hitting back. Where Mueller painstakingly avoided drawing any conclusions from his investigative findings — punting the question about whether Trump broke the law by obstructing justice to Attorney General William Barr — Schiff is prepared to embrace the actionable consequences of his work. “Mr. Mueller saw his limitations as a chain-of-command guy at the Justice Department, and he went as far as he thought he could go,” Pelosi told me, noting that Mueller was hemmed in by an Office of Legal Counsel opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. “Mr. Schiff is dealing with two things: the Constitution of the United States and the truth.”
Schiff is known among his colleagues — and watchers of cable news and Sunday shows, on which he has become a regular presence — for his sober mien and steady demeanor. “Nothing seems to rattle him,” says Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California. “If it does, it never shows.” But on this Friday afternoon, Schiff — who, an aide told me, was getting about two or three hours of sleep a night — appeared a bit dazed and depleted. Sipping from a cup of water as the dwindling sunlight trickled in through his office window, he contemplated the task ahead of him. “On the one hand, you’re shocked, and at the same time, you’re not surprised,” Schiff said of the information he was in the midst of uncovering. “And maybe that’s the most awful thing about this.”
The Ukraine investigation depositions usually begin first thing in the morning, when that day’s witness, accompanied by a phalanx of lawyers and security guards, makes his or her way past the dozens of reporters gathered outside the Intelligence Committee’s SCIF and into a conference room, which the committee more typically uses for briefings from C.I.A. leaders and National Security Agency analysts. Seated at the head of a long table, the witness speaks into a gooseneck microphone and answers as many questions as the lawmakers and their staffs have. Democrats, who are seated on one side of the table, are given an hour to ask questions. Then Republicans, sitting across the table from their Democratic counterparts, get an hour. The next round of questions is 45 minutes per side. They alternate like that until, sometimes as many as 10 hours later, there are no more questions left and the conference table is littered with Starbucks cups and half-eaten packs of animal crackers from the committee’s pantry.
Republicans have attacked Schiff and the Democrats for holding the depositions behind closed doors and not conducting a “transparent” investigation. “The entire press, the public should be able to see it,” Representative Steve Scalise, the House minority whip, said at a Republican House leadership news conference in October. “Members of Congress should be able to see it.” In fact, Democrats have been following the investigative rules Republicans themselves established when they controlled the House for the previous eight years. In 2015, Representative Trey Gowdy, the Republican from South Carolina who was then leading the House’s Benghazi Select Committee, told me about his reason for largely forgoing public hearings: “I know people want to see them, but if your goal is finding out what happened, it’s just not the best way to do it.”
Schiff says that the depositions — transcripts of which he says will later be made public — have been conducted in secret so that the witnesses can’t coordinate their testimony. The day before the committee deposed Gordon Sondland, a Trump campaign donor and the ambassador to the European Union, part of the transcript of Kurt Volker’s testimony was leaked to The Washington Examiner, and outgoing Secretary of Energy Rick Perry gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal describing his conversations with Giuliani about Ukraine. Schiff told me he believes these were deliberate actions by Republicans to help Sondland craft his testimony. “I don’t think either was coincidental,” he said.
The closed-door nature of the proceedings has also allowed Schiff and the Democrats to control the narrative of the investigation. During Volker’s testimony, Intelligence Committee Democrats noticed reports in conservative media outlets that they believed mischaracterized what he was telling the committee. “Even while the hearing was going on,” Schiff says, “some Republican members were pushing out text messages” about the testimony, “and doing so in a misleading way.” So that evening, the Democrats released to reporters copies of the text messages Volker had turned over to the committee, the first of what have been almost daily revelations to emerge from the hearings.
The Trump administration refused to cooperate with the House investigation, based on the contention by Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, that it is “constitutionally invalid” without authorization by a vote of the full House. Cipollone’s claim has been met with derision by many prominent lawyers, both liberal and conservative — “It’s pure hackery, and it disgraces the profession,” George Conway, a constitutional lawyer and the husband of the White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, wrote on Twitter — but it provided cover for Pompeo, Mulvaney, Giuliani and others who have decided not to hand over documents or testify. It has not, however, stopped a parade of current and former Trump administration officials from trooping down to the Intelligence Committee’s bunker and offering hours of testimony. “The problem the administration has is that they can tell people not to cooperate,” says Phil Barnett, a former Democratic staff director of the House Oversight Committee, “but it’s very hard for them to enforce that against people who want to cooperate, because it’s illegal. So the administration can only pound its chest.”
Multiple House Republicans — including Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas, who serves on the Intelligence Committee — have called on Schiff to recuse himself from the impeachment inquiry, citing claims of improper contact between his staff and the whistle-blower. Last month, Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, tried to force a floor vote on a measure formally censuring Schiff. (The vote was blocked on party lines.) Since Schiff issued his initial subpoena to Maguire, Trump has tweeted about Schiff more than 70 times — describing him as “shifty,” “liddle” and “a very dishonest sleazebag” (among other things) and suggesting that he be “arrested for treason.” During a speech at the Values Voter Summit in October, Trump said of Schiff: “Pencil neck. You would not be impressed with him physically. But he’s a crooked person. Smart guy, he’s crooked as hell.”
The attacks have taken a personal toll. I asked Schiff, who is Jewish, if he agrees with those who contend that Trump’s description of him as “shifty” is anti-Semitic. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think the president intends, like so much else, for it to be a dog whistle.” He is now one of the few members of Congress not in either party’s leadership who receives protection from the Capitol police. But the furor doesn’t seem to have swayed public opinion. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the impeachment inquiry.
“Adam has one of the better styles for the Trump era in that he manages to be in charge of his own narrative rather than permitting Trump to set the terms of the debate,” says Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama who became friendly with Schiff when he worked in the White House. “You contrast that with Mueller, who said nothing publicly, and it hurt him badly because Trump is constantly setting the terms of public perception. And you contrast that with people who chase every tweet Trump sends and get in a back and forth. Schiff engages on his own terms while not allowing Trump to suck up all the oxygen.”
The blue wave of the 2018 midterm elections gave the Democrats control of the House of Representatives and, with it, the chairmanship of several congressional committees with the power to probe Trump’s 2016 campaign’s involvement with Russia, his efforts to obstruct Mueller’s investigation or anything else. The committees — in particular the Judiciary Committee, whose chairman is Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York; the Oversight Committee, led by Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland until his death last month; and Schiff’s Intelligence Committee — offered Democrats their first real beachhead in Trump’s Washington after two years of near-total Republican control. At first, the chairmen were optimistic, bordering on cocky, about what they would be able to expose now that they could hold hearings, request documents and issue subpoenas.
But Democrats underestimated the degree to which the Trump administration, unlike previous presidents’, would simply refuse to participate in the oversight process, ignoring requests and subpoenas for documents and testimony. “In the past, when there has been resistance from administrations, what’s generally happened is administrations realize that they’ll lose in a fight with Congress in terms of public perception — that it will look like they’re hiding something,” says Phil Schiliro, a former staff director of the House Oversight Committee who now informally advises House Democrats. “This administration apparently doesn’t care what the president’s approval ratings are. It’s much more focused on base politics and keeping damaging information from coming out.” As a result, the White House has taken almost every congressional subpoena for documents or testimony to court. There, the administration might ultimately lose, but it can tie the matter up in litigation for months and possibly even years.
Schiff’s committee spent much of this year focused on Trump’s Russia-related business dealings and was preparing a report on his Trump Tower Moscow project before the Ukraine investigation eclipsed its other work. But it was slow going. “We’ve essentially hit a brick wall,” a senior Democratic official with the Intelligence Committee, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, now concedes. “It’s very hard to make progress when you’re not getting new material to work with, when you’re not able to interview people you need to meet with.”
In March, Nadler’s Judiciary Committee — which has the authority to conduct impeachment proceedings and a membership containing some of the most liberal and outspoken representatives in the Democratic caucus — sent out letters to 81 individuals and groups, from Jared Kushner to the National Rifle Association, requesting documents and information as part of a sweeping investigation into Trump’s campaign, business, presidential transition and administration. Some House Democrats, especially those in leadership and on the other investigative committees, were aghast, according to Democratic members and staff: If the recipients of the letters chose to ignore them, it was possible that floor votes would be required to enforce the requests, which would put House Democrats from swing districts in an awkward position.
Sure enough, the letters were met with silence from the Trump administration. “He’s pretty much turned his rear end toward Congress and the American people and told us to kiss it,” Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat and Judiciary Committee member, says of the president. Democrats ultimately called one floor vote on the matter to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress. (In response, the Justice Department could have brought criminal charges against Barr and Ross, though it has predictably declined to do so.)
Mueller’s own appearances before the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees in July, which Democrats hoped would bring his more than 400-page report to life, were duds. The special prosecutor was halting and unsteady, refusing to venture beyond the report or even to restate its contents, often responding to questions with a terse “I direct you to my report.” And Nadler’s attempts to get public testimony from administration officials were thwarted by the White House’s claims of executive privilege and other legal arguments.
The Judiciary Committee instead summoned Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who did not work in the administration but who, according to the Mueller report, was enlisted by Trump to obstruct Mueller’s investigation. But when he did testify in September, Lewandowski struck a defiant tone, not only refusing to answer most of the Democratic members’ questions but loudly questioning the committee’s very legitimacy. During his testimony, Judiciary Committee lawyers and aides explored the possibility of Nadler’s holding Lewandowski in contempt, before concluding that the maneuver would result in a legal and political morass. Pelosi said in a subsequent private meeting of House Democrats, to the frustration of some Judiciary Committee members, that Lewandowski should have been held in contempt by the committee “then and there.”
When the Ukraine story broke, Democrats, who had grown exhausted of the Mueller probe even before Lewandowski’s testimony, quickly shifted gears. “Mueller’s Russia thing was a sprawling, Tolstoyesque story taking place on multiple continents with dozens of players, and it was fairly difficult even for people who were following it closely to keep everybody and everything straight,” says the senior Democratic official with the Intelligence Committee. “The Ukraine thing is a fairly easy story. It’s more like an episode of ‘The Sopranos.’ ”
And Democrats believed that in the Trump-Zelensky call transcript, they already had their most important piece of evidence. “The smoking gun is not the holy grail we’re looking for,” says Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland. “The Ukraine scandal began with the smoking gun.”
Pelosi, meanwhile, seemed to jump at the opportunity the Ukraine scandal offered: to move impeachment largely out of Nadler’s hands and into the domain of Schiff and the Intelligence Committee, first with its closed-door depositions and then, as the House voted on Oct. 31, with a series of public hearings that are expected to begin in November. “Nadler has totally screwed up his attempt at impeachment,” says Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida who serves on the Judiciary Committee. “So now you see Nancy Pelosi calling Adam Schiff out of the bullpen to throw impeachment screwballs.”
On a recent morning in the Capitol, Schiff stood stiffly in a corner of an ornate reception room just off the House floor, away from the tumult of his colleagues hobnobbing after a vote. He explained to me why he was a latecomer to the Democrats’ impeachment bandwagon. From the beginning, he said, he felt that his party faced a dilemma. “A failure to move forward with an impeachment of a president who engaged in the kind of wrongdoing this president has would send a message to the next president or Congress that this is consistent with the office now, we have so lowered the bar,” he said. “But I was also concerned about the result of a trial and acquittal in the Senate and what message that would send to the next president.”
Schiff’s initial reluctance to pursue impeachment, paradoxically, has made him a particularly effective advocate for it in the past month. In his interviews and news conferences, he strikes a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, in keeping with Pelosi’s interest in presenting impeachment as a “prayerful, solemn, difficult” process. “None of us came to Congress to impeach a president of the United States,” she says. “We take no joy in it, no glee.”
Joy and glee have not generally been hallmarks of Schiff’s public style. “Adam wasn’t the kind of person you could imagine wanting to kiss babies and shake hands at the factory door,” says Brian Hennigan, who worked with Schiff in the Los Angeles U.S. attorney’s office, where Schiff, a Harvard Law School graduate, served as a prosecutor. “Frankly, I would have seen him being more comfortable as a law-school professor.”
Schiff lost his first two campaigns for the California Legislature. In 1996, on his third attempt, he was elected to represent a State Senate district that included Glendale and part of Hollywood. Three years later, Representative Jim Rogan, the Republican whose congressional district overlapped with Schiff’s district in the State Senate, served as a House manager in Bill Clinton’s impeachment. In 2000, David Geffen and other Hollywood executives recruited Schiff to run against Rogan in what was then the most expensive House race in the country.
“My polls showed 75 percent of high-propensity voters in my district, including Republicans, said they would never vote for me if I voted to impeach Clinton,” recalls Rogan, who is now a California state judge. “Of course, I proved the polls wrong: I think only about 60 percent of them never voted for me again!”
For most of his time in Washington, Schiff kept a low profile, taking on seemingly worthy but decidedly unglamorous projects. In 2003, around the beginning of the Iraq war (which Schiff voted to authorize), he helped start the Democratic Study Group on National Security, which hosted early-morning foreign-policy discussions in a Capitol basement conference room with guests like Newt Gingrich and the former senator Sam Nunn. It was nicknamed “the nerd caucus.” In 2010, he served as a lead House manager in the impeachment of a corrupt federal judge, Thomas Porteous, shepherding the case from the House Judiciary Committee to the Senate floor. Schiff earned the respect of his colleagues for his intelligence and diligence — “I teased Adam that if these gigs didn’t work out for us, he was good enough that I’d like to be the junior partner in the law firm of Schiff and Whitehouse,” recalls Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a Democrat — but he remained largely unknown outside the halls of Congress.
That changed in 2017, when Schiff’s position as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee made him a suddenly prominent figure. For the first two years of the Trump presidency, when Republicans controlled the House, the Intelligence Committee was primarily consumed with the tricky task of appearing to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election while at the same time absolving Trump of participating in — or benefiting from — that interference.
Leading the effort was the committee’s Republican chairman, Representative Devin Nunes. Nunes’s committee Republicans produced a report that concluded that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government; the report further claimed, contrary to the official consensus of the American intelligence community, that the Russian government hadn’t sought to help elect Trump. Nunes also started another set of investigations into the F.B.I. and the Justice Department for what he claimed was “criminal activity and fraudulent behavior” in their investigations of Trump — an unsubtle attempt to undermine Mueller’s efforts.
As the ranking Democrat on the committee, Schiff lacked the ability to single-handedly issue subpoenas or even call witnesses, but he made enterprising use of the little leverage he did have. He appeared frequently on television and held regular news conferences on Capitol Hill, becoming the Democrats’ go-to explainer of what was happening behind closed doors. As the ranking committee member, Schiff was usually allotted unlimited time for an opening statement at the committee’s public hearings — an opportunity members of Congress typically use for grandstanding and speechifying. Schiff thought of the statements as something like the opening arguments he used to make as a prosecutor in Los Angeles courtrooms: an opportunity to zoom out and situate the granular details that juries were about to hear in the bigger picture of the case, focusing their attention on the story he wanted those details to tell.
“We try to set out in sort of non-Beltway language what the general issues are,” Schiff told me, “and why they warrant investigation or warrant concern.” In March 2017, the Intelligence Committee called James Comey, then director of the F.B.I., to testify — the hearing in which Comey revealed for the first time that the F.B.I. had initiated a counterintelligence investigation of Trump’s campaign, Russia and the 2016 election. Schiff’s opening remarks in the hearing arguably established the narrative that governed the Russia story for the next two years. Laying out a timeline of contacts among people in and around the Trump campaign — including Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and others — with Russia and WikiLeaks during the summer of 2016, when Russia’s “active measures” campaign began trying to damage Hillary Clinton and help Trump, Schiff asked: “Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated, and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated.”
When Schiff became Intelligence Committee chairman in January, he beefed up the committee’s investigative staff. He hired three former federal prosecutors, a former F.B.I. agent and an investigator who was an expert in Russia-related matters — and who, it happened, grew up in Ukraine and speaks Ukrainian. This summer, the investigator noticed a series of articles in the Ukrainian press about the recall of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and other unusual happenings in U.S.-Ukrainian relations, as well as Giuliani’s comments about Ukraine in the American media. According to another senior Democratic official with the Intelligence Committee, the committee “started developing a potential framework for an investigation” of Trump and Ukraine as far back as June — before the whistle-blower first approached an Intelligence Committee aide, who recommended that the whistle-blower get a lawyer and bring the matter to the attention of an inspector general.
It was the timing of Trump’s supposed wrongdoing, as eventually revealed by the whistle-blower, that was particularly alarming to Schiff and ultimately persuaded him to support an impeachment inquiry. “What struck me was the fact that the president engaged in this conduct” — in his July 25 phone call with Zelensky — “the day after Mueller testified,” Schiff told me. “It demonstrates that this president thinks he’s above the law and there’s no accountability whatsoever. And that, to me, said the greater danger here may be a president who feels completely above the law.”
During his opening statement before Joseph Maguire’s testimony to the Intelligence Committee, Schiff tried to describe “the essence” of Trump’s message to Zelensky during their July 25 phone call. Schiff paraphrased Trump as telling Zelensky, “I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent, understand? Lots of it.” Schiff seemed to be exaggerating for effect, but Trump and other Republicans, in high dudgeon, accused him of fabrication. “Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President,” Trump tweeted, “and read it aloud to Congress and the American people.”
When I asked Schiff if he regretted that part of his statement, he bristled. “The reality is that the president would be attacking me and will be attacking me no matter what I do, so I don’t spend much time looking backward, second-guessing,” he told me. “It’s a house of sand, and if they weren’t attacking me about this house of sand, they would be attacking me about some other.”
A more pressing concern has been persuading his own caucus. Impeachment’s prospects in the House have been riding significantly on a cohort of about 40 Democrats, most of them freshmen, who represent swing districts. A number of these “frontline” Democrats, as Pelosi calls them, were opposed to impeachment for much of this year, during which they repeatedly turned to Schiff for guidance on the matter.
“What was intriguing about Mr. Schiff for me in the early days was that he had no reason to be reticent about this process but was incredibly thoughtful and reticent about it,” says Representative Chrissy Houlahan, a first-term congresswoman from Pennsylvania. “And because he was that way, he seemed like a good person for me to ask: ‘Why are you so reluctant to talk about these issues? What is it that you’re looking for?’ ”
Houlahan and four other moderate female first-term Democrats — Elaine Luria of Virginia, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia — call themselves the “badasses.” Before coming to Congress, they all served in the armed forces or in the C.I.A. Since arriving in Washington, members of the group have held frequent meetings and conversations with Schiff. On Monday, Sept. 23, the “badasses” — plus Representative Jason Crow of Colorado and Representative Gil Cisneros of California, two freshman Democrats with military backgrounds who represent swing districts — published an op-ed in The Washington Post declaring that if the claims were true that Trump had withheld “security assistance funds to persuade a foreign country to assist him in an upcoming election,” then “these actions represent an impeachable offense.”
That night, Houlahan called Schiff from her townhouse in Washington, where some of the authors had gathered, and he congratulated them on the article. The next day, Pelosi announced that the House would begin an impeachment inquiry. “When they wrote that op-ed, that was it,” says a senior Democratic House aide. “It meant that everybody was on board, including these moderate Democrats, and the caucus and the speaker immediately recognized that.”
“One of the things that gives me so much optimism in this otherwise very dark time for the country is that some of the best new members of Congress this body’s ever had were elected in this class,” Schiff says. “I think the same way after 9/11 people decided to join the service to protect the country, people after watching the attack on our Constitution and rule of law by this president decided to serve in another way, by running for Congress.”
On the last Friday of October, Schiff headed 45 miles north of Washington to Baltimore for Elijah Cummings’s funeral service. Cummings’s death a week earlier, he said, “was like a punch in the stomach.” Schiff had grown close to the Baltimore congressman when they served together on the Benghazi Committee. “The only good thing to come out of Benghazi was getting to know Elijah Cummings,” he said. “Otherwise I would have wanted those two years of my life back.” Although Cummings, 68, had been hospitalized for much of the past two years — for a serious knee infection and complications from a heart-valve replacement — and had been missing from Congress since September because of a medical issue, his death was unexpected. “I just spoke with him the week before,” Schiff told me the day after Cummings died, “and he was confident he was going to be back in a couple of weeks.”
At the New Psalmist Baptist Church, Schiff and some of his congressional colleagues filed past Cummings’s open casket before taking their seats. The day before, at a memorial service in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, Democrats and Republicans offered testimonials. But the funeral service in Baltimore was a more partisan affair, with no Republican speakers and a who’s who of Democratic heavyweights — Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — singing Cummings’s praises and drawing not-so-implicit contrasts between him and the president, who had made virulent, racist attacks against Cummings and his city in recent months. “Like that Old Testament prophet, he stood against the corrupt leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel,” Hillary Clinton said of Cummings. Cummings, who was signing subpoenas from his hospital bed the morning before he died, planned the funeral service himself, and the message he wanted to deliver seemed unmistakable. “It now falls on us to continue his work,” Obama said.
Schiff had found himself reflecting lately on the founding fathers and whether, in creating coequal branches of government, they had sufficiently accounted for factionalism. “I think the founders felt they did as much as they could do to set ambition against ambition, to give the members of the Congress an incentive to defend their institution,” he told me not long before the funeral. “I think there was an expectation that that ambition to defend their institution would be a strong-enough counterweight to the natural inclination to support a president of your own party. They may have been too optimistic about that in an environment where you have a cultlike leader of the party.”
On one occasion in October, more than 30 G.O.P. members, led by Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman, stormed the SCIF and interrupted the deposition of a Defense Department official to protest what they claimed was the lack of transparency and fairness in the inquiry. (Forty-eight Republicans — members of the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees — are permitted to attend the depositions, including a number of Republicans who took part in Gaetz’s protest.) Gaetz and his group were ultimately ejected from the SCIF, and the deposition continued.
“What I like about the Intelligence Committee under Adam Schiff is he is an adult, and he encourages other people to act like adults,” says Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, a Democrat who joined the committee this year. “It’s not some shitshow like you see out in public in some other places in the Capitol, where dipshits like Gaetz can play their games and get some mileage out of it.”
Last week, Democrats unveiled plans to move the impeachment inquiry out from behind closed doors, with the Intelligence Committee expected to hold public hearings as soon as mid-November — at which point it may be harder for Schiff to get everyone to act like adults. “Historically, the Intelligence Committee has not been subject to the same excess of partisanship and histrionics” as other committees, Schiff says. That’s partly because of the way its members are selected by the parties’ congressional leaders — who tend to pick their more disciplined, diplomatic colleagues for the assignment — and partly because of the frequently closed-door nature of the committee’s work.
But the committee’s sober, comparatively bipartisan culture, Schiff concedes, “has been put to the test investigating the president.” Schiff has chosen a format for the public hearings that mirrors the closed-door sessions, which will allow for sustained questioning of the witnesses by committee lawyers and Schiff and Nunes, rather than five-minute rounds of questions for each member.
Among Democrats on the committee, this plan was well received. “Nobody was putting their ego ahead of the importance of conducting an orderly, fact-finding process,” Schiff says. But how Republicans will act is largely out of Schiff’s control. “If the minority wants to do what they can to nonetheless turn it into a circus, they can use whatever tactics they want,” he says. “But certainly I hope that they will choose to conduct themselves in a serious manner that the seriousness of the allegations warrants.”
Although Democrats are now largely united behind the idea that Trump should be impeached, they remain significantly divided about what, exactly, Trump should be impeached for. Pelosi has instructed the Intelligence, Oversight, Foreign Affairs, Financial Services and Ways and Means Committees to send the results of their investigations to the Judiciary Committee, which will then decide if any of them should be included in articles of impeachment.
There are some Democrats, a number of whom sit on the Judiciary Committee, who favor an expansive approach, with articles of impeachment for everything from Trump’s violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause to obstruction of the Mueller investigation to the Ukraine matter. “We want to make this as airtight and as focused as possible, but we’re dealing with a president who’s a one-man crime wave,” Jamie Raskin, the Maryland congressman, told me when I visited him in his congressional office in mid-October. A constitutional-law professor and member of the Judiciary Committee, Raskin started calling for an impeachment inquiry in May; one bookshelf in his office was devoted exclusively to books with titles like “Impeached” and “The End of a Presidency.”
But other Democrats, especially those who represent swing districts, want to keep the impeachment focus on the Ukraine matter. “Keeping it narrow and defined to this particular instance, where the American public can understand what was done and what the implications were, I think, is enough,” says Representative Elaine Luria, a freshman from Virginia and one of the “badasses.” Houlahan told me: “We need to be as surgical and as deliberate as we can be. I feel as though that there’s a little bit of, ‘Oh, well, we did all this work, and now we need to pile it on.’ And you know, that’s in the past. It’s in some ways sunk costs in my opinion.”
At a certain point, Pelosi will have to decide how broad or how narrow the Democrats’ impeachment shot should be. When I asked her about this, she said, “Don’t you worry about who drafts those articles!” It is a good bet that whatever she decides, Schiff will continue to play a prominent role. “I would expect and want him to be an impeachment manager,” says Sheldon Whitehouse, who would be a juror in a Senate impeachment trial.
On one of the rare mornings in October that the Intelligence Committee wasn’t holding a deposition, Schiff sat in a dingy cafeteria in the Capitol basement, filled with Capitol police officers eating their breakfasts, and sipped an unsweetened iced tea. The “dam was breaking,” he said: More and more witnesses were coming forward to testify against Trump. “The portrait of a president who continues to put his personal interests above the national interests is coming into sharper and sharper view.” His phone rang; Pelosi wanted to see him right away in her office. In a few hours, he would leave with the speaker as part of a small congressional delegation on an unannounced trip to Jordan and Afghanistan.
As he headed to the elevator, Schiff told me a story about a sailboat ride he shared with Pelosi earlier this year, in the waters off Hyannis Port, on Cape Cod, during a Democratic fund-raising weekend. When they left the harbor, the skies were clear. But then “the clouds rolled in, and the wind picked up, and the skies darkened, and the rain started coming down,” Schiff said. “Soon we were ‘burying the rail’ ” — heeling so far to one side that the rail of the boat was underwater. The captain was worried about the stomachs and nerves of his V.I.P. passengers. “He said, ‘We can lower the sail and motor back,’ ” Schiff recalled. “And the speaker’s reaction was: ‘Yes, you could, but that would be the cowardly thing to do.’ And so the captain said, ‘Keep the sail up.’ ”
I asked Schiff if he would have preferred the safer choice of motoring back. “No,” he said. “I was loving it.”