Ignatius: So welcome to all of you. This is the latest in our series Securing Tomorrow. We’re especially lucky tonight have Congressman Adam Schiff, who is as everyone knows, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He represents what I think of as the heart of Southern California: Pasadena, Burbank, and Glendale, where my father was born. So he’s a graduate of Stanford and Harvard Law School. He was a prosecutor as a young man in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles and now, he has his hands full. [LAUGHTER]
So, Congressman, what have you been doing lately? I mean, what’s going on? [LAUGHTER]
Schiff: It’s been pretty quiet. Not much happening.
Ignatius: It seems quiet. I know it was easy for you to get away and see us. I just want to say to the people who may be watching online or in the audience that you can send questions. I don’t promise that I’ll be able to answer or ask them all, but you can send them to #SecuringTomorrow and we will look at them. So congressman, let me start with today’s big news, which was the testimony or the submission of the prepared testimony that will be delivered tomorrow by James Comey. It was a moment-by-moment account of his meetings and conversations with President Trump about issues the issues involved in the Russian investigation. And I want to ask you and I’m sure you’ve read it carefully what your own reactions were to what Comey will say to the Senate Intelligence Committee tomorrow?
Schiff: Well, I guess my first reaction was that we can’t lose our capacity to be shocked by events. It’s a real risk that the president has so changed what we expect of a president of the United States; that even when there’s conduct that ought to be viewed as so anathema to the office that we fail to be surprised. Here, part of, I think, the reaction is we knew a lot of this already. We already had a preview of it so in that sense; it confirmed some of our worst fears: that the president of the United States demanded loyalty from a director of the FBI and the timing, I think, is very significant.
January 26th, Sally Yates goes to the White House to warn the White House that their National Security advisor may be compromised. The following day, the president on the spur of the moment invites the director to dine with him alone and asks for a pledge of loyalty. Now, is the one related to the other? And then notably, flash forward to February 13th, Michael Flynn is fired. The following day, the president asks Director Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. So it’s not just the shock value of a president of the United States seeking to get the FBI director to pledge fealty, to drop an important investigation, but also the timing of all of this. And of course, the context of the written testimony today takes place at a time when you have two other directors testifying before Congress who are asked a very simple question: did the president of the United States ask you to weigh in to get the director of the FBI to back down on this Flynn investigation and they’re not willing to answer?
So, you put all of this together, it paints, I think, a very alarming picture of the conduct of the president of the United States.
Ignatius: I want to come back to the Coats and Rogers testimony in a moment, but let me put to you the question that more and more people are asking in print and on television and I think is in the minds of more and more people in the country, which is: does the behavior that Comey describes in his testimony look to you like it may represent obstruction of the ongoing investigation that Comey was conducting?
Schiff: It is certainly evidence of interference or obstruction. The question I think is where does this evidence fill in with other actions of the president and what does the complete picture that emerges look like? I still think there’s a lot we don’t know. Obviously, there were some very important questions that did not get answered today that will have to be answered and I’m confident will be answered. I don’t think that they will make a successful claim of executive privilege to shield that information from Congress. So there’s I think still a number of missing pieces, but the broader question is what standard are we trying to meet here? Are we looking at this as we would—is this an indictable offense? A prosecutorial decision here by Director Mueller? Or is this an issue because it involves the president of the United States, a question of whether this rises to the level of removal from office? And there, I think that the practical test is very different from the legal one.
Ignatius: Even if you can make a legal case that, the conduct that Director Comey testified in written form today coupled with other actions of the president, and including most significantly, the firing of Comey itself. Even if you can make a legal case that that amounts to obstruction, would you be able to persuade a Republican Congress enough of the GOP members that they can go back home and explain to their Republican constituents that the president’s conduct is so disqualifying that he cannot remain in office and that this is not just an effort to nullify an election that people don’t agree with.
That makes me wonder if next year’s midterm election won’t be in effect, a referendum on this conduct. Do you think that’s right that this will be, in part, an election about having a Democratic majority and being able to consider impeachment politically? If that’s so, what do you think that will do to the country?
Schiff: I think the midterm will be a referendum on the president. It may not be a referendum on precisely that question but I think it will be a referendum on whether Americans feel there needs to be a constraint on this president. Obviously, if evidence emerges or substantiated and rises to an even higher level, it could be a very different question. But if ever the argument was going to resonate, I think, that there needs to be a check on the executive, that time is now and it will not only be the president’s actions but it will also be whether the Republicans in Congress have demonstrated a sufficient devotion to the country and the office to stand up to this president. And if they are not willing to address some of the problems in the country. If they don’t have ideas to offer, if they aren’t capable of governing, if they don’t fulfill promises on healthcare and taxes and everything else; that will be inseparable from the presidency, but I think that could result in a major realignment in the midterms.
Ignatius: Let me ask you a lawyer’s question. There’s been a lively debate going on online about whether—although our Constitution specifies that impeachment is the remedy for presidential misconduct—whether a president can also be indicted. What’s your view as a lawyer about that?
Schiff: Well, I suppose the legal answer is probably anyone can be indicted, including the president of the United States. But again, I have to imagine the more practical question is would that action takes place or would Mr. Mueller, if he reached the point of believing that there was sufficient evidence, present that to Congress. Would, in effect, the Justice Department make the decision that the courts often do not to insert itself into what they view as a more quintessentially political question than a legal one. I have to think as a gut instinct, that that would likely be the conclusion. But that’s only a gut instinct.
Ignatius: Sometime in the future to be considered, if at all. Let me ask you about the other big piece of news today, which you referred to, which was the testimony of direction of National Intelligence, Dan Coats and NSA Director Mike Rogers, who when pressed whether they had been asked by the president to, in effect, intervene to slow or shelve the investigation of General Flynn, wouldn’t answer, and that prompted really quite an angry response from members of the committee. Angus King, in particular, if you had a chance to see it, seemed really indignant that especially Admiral Rogers wouldn’t answer.
If they had been witnesses before your committee and had made similar statements, saying that they didn’t believe it was appropriate to answer the question, what would you have said to them?
Schiff: My reaction, although I’m sure it would have been far less articulate, would have been exactly Senator King’s reaction. That’s not acceptable. The fact that you don’t want to answer a question or you feel personally it’s not appropriate to be asked the question, that’s not the standard. You either have a legal basis to refuse to answer or you don’t; they don’t have one. These conversations are not classified. There has been no invocation of executive privilege. Now, they may in the future and maybe they are as we speak. But up to that point, there have not been. So there was no basis for them to refuse. Plainly, the reason they refused is to avoid embarrassment to the White House. Perhaps out of a desire to maintain their employment. That is not a satisfactory reason to refuse to answer questions from Congress.
This isn’t a situation where Congress is merely probing conversations with the president over policy matters, and you can certainly understand why there would be a desire not to intrude on those conversations and to encourage the free deliberation of ideas within the White House. This is going to potential impropriety or illegality and they’re going to have to answer those questions and I’ve talked to Director Rogers subsequent to the morning session and certainly made clear my view: those questions are going to have to be answered. And we’ll have to do what’s necessary to get an answer.
Ignatius: And take us just one step further on that. I don’t want to ask you to betray your conversation with Rogers, but what is the next step here? How can the testimony you say is legally necessary be obtained if people are refusing to give it? Where does that go?
Schiff: Well, I have to think that what’s going to happen next is the White House is going to make a decision to claim privilege or not and it sounded, reading between the lines of Director Rogers testimony, not his conversation with me—which I don’t want to go into, but it sounded like they were less than clear about that. And reading again, between the lines, my guess is the White House wanted them to say nothing but didn’t want to leave their executive privilege fingerprints on it. And if they could get away with it, they would, and if they can’t, then they’ll have to cross the bridge of claiming privilege or not. I think if they make a claim of privilege, there is a compelling argument that they have waived it, that the president himself has waived it, that the directors waived it because you can’t come before Congress and say—no president, including this one, said something that made me feel under pressure to do something I thought was unethical or illegitimate.
And by saying so, implied what took place in that conversation and then say, “But I won’t go further.” You open the door and you’re forced to walk through it. So I think they would have a very weak claim of privilege. We would have to ultimately, if push came to shove, litigate that. There is a practice even where there is a claim of privilege to waive that in cases of impropriety or illegality. But of course, this White House operates by a very different set of rules. So whether they would honor that or not, who knows? And I will say this in the broader context: I am astonished how much damage can be done by a president of the United States acting within the law and it does underscore to me in a way I hadn’t appreciated before just how much our system depends on the observation of certain norms of behavior and at a certain level of decency and how much you can really shake the foundation of the republic when you depart those very basic norms and basic sense of decency.
Ignatius: Let me ask you to step back a bit to the investigation as a whole. Your Senate counterpart, Senator Mark Warner said last week that he’s seen a lot of evidence, a lot of smoke, but no smoking gun. In other words, not yet evidence of collusion—if I understood him, illegal actions by the president or his close associates. How would you characterize the investigation so far?
Schiff: Well, first of all, I would say we’re still fairly early in the investigation and people need to bear in mind the FBI has been at this since July of last year. We pretty much got started in earnest about two months ago and we have a fraction of the resources that the FBI does. So our investigation is really getting underway. We have made requests for the witnesses to come before us, for documents, which we need to review before they come in. We have had to subpoena some that were not willing to cooperate. We have a mountain of documents to go through in terms of what our intelligence agencies know and as you saw in former Director Brennan’s testimony, there were things that the intelligence agencies were seeing that were so concerning to them that they referred that material and information to the FBI. So a lot of that is the kind of material that we’re reviewing.
And then we need to try to corroborate, chase down, and confirm what we can. Some of that evidence is in hostile hands in terms of—within Russian hands. Others, it may be within the hands of people in the United States who are not interested in cooperating with us. So early and difficult work. In terms of how I would characterize it, it’s the kind of information, frankly, that would lead you to do an investigation. It’s not where you are at the end of an investigation. But I will say this: I think there was very good reason for the FBI to begin its investigation. I think there’s a very good reason for them to continue to that investigation. I feel a great sense of confidence in Director Mueller and that is a very important piece because the FBI has a reach that we don’t have, that we cannot replicate. We need to them to do their job.
We need them to be vigorous about it, not in reactive mode. We need them to be proactive because this is going to be hard. And I have every confidence that Mueller will do that.
Ignatius: And just to give people some sense of how long this process is likely to take; the country is kind of bouncing from day-to-day, news story to news story. Based on what you know of your own investigation and your insight into the FBIs and eventually, the Justice Department’s. How long do you think this process that Mueller is leading is likely to take? Obviously, you can’t be certain but does it seem like months? Does it seem like a year? What’s your rough time sense?
Schiff: Well, this is probably the most difficult question. It is, at a minimum going to take many, many months and it could very well take a lot longer than that. If he’s going to do it right, it’s going to have to be thorough. The same is true of us in Congress and he’s going to want to start out just as we are. That is, focusing on the less significant witnesses, finding out what they can tell us that we need to ask of the more significant witnesses and building the information in a rational way. So I don’t think anybody should suspect that this is going to be over soon. I think you can anticipate though, and we’re starting to see it already; the administration pushing out a line, “Okay, it’s time to wrap this up.” I’m sure they would like nothing more than us to wrap up before we really get started. And indeed, one of the things that I found that really resonated in reading Director Comey’s testimony was when he alluded to the president saying essentially, “This Russia cloud is in my way. We need to somehow get rid of this Russia cloud.” I think that was the president’s way of saying, “We need to make this go away.” And I think he would like nothing more than it to go away in Congress as well. So I think we will see them begin to ratchet the pressure in Congress, knowing that we can’t do this quickly.
But nonetheless, to try to begin a drumbeat that the investigation ought to stop before it really gets started.
Ignatius: How do we, over this extended period, keep from driving the country crazy? It’s a stressful period for America citizens. I just came back this last weekend from Russian, and to be honest, what I kept hearing over and over again from Russians is, “You Americans are just destroying yourselves. We can’t believe it.” So obviously, we want this investigation to continue and reach a conclusion. In the meantime, what would be your thought about how we keep from turning the country upside down? I’ll put it that way.
Schiff: Well, it’s a great question and there’s no doubt that for a great many Americans, this has been the most traumatic political period in their lifetime and I have untold numbers of people who tell me that they’re losing sleep. It’s affecting their eating habits. And you see, of course, reports that mental health experts are busier than ever. There’s a whole syndrome that’s been created. I’d love to say that there is an easy remedy. But there isn’t and I think the challenge is twofold. The challenge is we have a major disrupter in the White House and that’s not going to change. Whatever attributes of character drive him to do what he does, drive him to contradict his own Justice Department, to question his own people and what I find most amazing, is the degree to which the president of the United States continually portrays himself as a victim.
He’s a victim. America is a victim. We’re all victims. For a party that likes to attack anyone else; Democrats, humanitarians, etc., for wanting to play the victim card; there’s no one playing that more than the president of the United States. And whatever attributing character that makes him behave the way he does is not going to stop and likely will get worse with the pressure of the job. And that drives, I think, a lot of the consternation and the uncertainty and reaction. The other problem though, much predates Donald Trump and we can’t lie at his feet and this is the deep division within our own country and David and I were talking earlier about this. I keep coming back to something President Obama said when he gave that press conference where he talked for the first time about the Russian hacking and he talked about why it was so successful.
And in part, he talked about how ironic it was that in the party of Reagan, there would be a willingness to embrace or acquiesce in foreign interference by Russian of all places. But he said the reason why this was effective was they could play upon these divisions. That the divisions were so profound that people were willing to accept foreign help as long as it helped them and hurt the other side and that’s a problem we can’t lay completely at the president’s feet. He’s certainly making it worse, but preexisted, predated this president. Somehow, we have to address. I will say because I, in terms of my own party—we bear responsibility in a couple of areas. We bear responsibility I think within our last administration for not asking earlier and more forcefully when we knew the Russians were hacking. I think the administration acted out of a desire not to be perceived as interfering when the actions I think deprive the public of information they really needed and should have about the seriousness of what the Russians were doing. But as Democrats, we also failed to persuade the country why they should care more about the fact a foreign power was meddling in our affairs than what these emails had to say, which was relatively inconsequential.
Ignatius: Let me follow that line of discussion and dial this back to July of last year when information about the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee first surfaced. And one interesting point that you see as you go back over that record is that you and Senator Feinstein at that time were quite outspoken in warning about this and a number of us have written that through the summer and early fall, but certainly in August, September; you in closed conversations were raising concerns with officials about the need to react more strongly. We now know that CIA Director John Brennan was in touch with his Russian counterpart expressing concern. But somehow, that message wasn’t conveyed in a way that changed Russian actions. And I want to ask you what the lesson is for that. You were usefully self-critical about the Democratic Party and the administration, but more broadly, what’s the lesson to take away about how to send the message so it’s credible?
Schiff: I would make a couple of points. The first is, I would go back even before the Russia hack to the North Korean hack. Now, I took a personal interest in this because they were hacking the entertainment industry and that’s my district.
Ignatius: But all politics is local. [LAUGHTER]
Schiff: That’s true but the point that I was making at that time was we needed to establish a deterrent. If the North Koreans concluded that this was essentially a free crime, we would see them do it again and not only them, we would see others do it again. And I don’t think we adequately addressed the North Korean hack. I remember at the time, there was a debate about whether the lights were going out in Pyongyang, whether that was our response. Now, if people have to wonder whether you’ve responded, it’s probably not going to be much of a deterrent. And the problem in North Korea is the lights are going out all the time. [LAUGHTER] And this also shows that a cyber-response to a cyber attack is not always the right response. We have obviously, far greater capability to respond than North Korea does.
But we are far more vulnerable because their infrastructure is rudimentary to ours [00:27:07 ph]. It is completely wired and they can do us a lot of damage. What I was urging then was that we respond in a way that really gets North Korea’s attention. When the South Koreans want to respond to North Korea, they do it with information. They do it with loudspeakers; they do it by telling people in the North what a terrible regime they live under that’s starving their own people. And my thought was we ought to respond along those lines so that Kim Jong-un has to think before he engages before in another cyber attack, “Do I really want to invite more information wars coming into the North?”
But I also think the Russians were watching and decided that, well, we didn’t respond to that. They could get away with a cyber attack. The nice thing about cyber attacks from an offensive point of view is you only have to find one vulnerability as opposed to defending against the millions, so it’s asymmetrically very beneficial but you will also always have the deniability because the victim—the United States, in this case, of a cyber attack is never going to want to fully reveal how they know you were the source. So there’s always going to be some level of deniability and indeed, you have Putin denying it to this day.
So you need a strong deterrent. We didn’t have one. When Senator Feinstein and I issued that statement and we did something very unusual. We not only issued a statement before the administration was willing to, but we issued a statement that we said was on the basis of briefings we were getting in closed session. We don’t do that. We had to vet that with the intelligence agencies before we could. But what I also urged at the time was that once they did make attribution, which followed in October; they should go beyond that and impose another round of sanctions on Russia as a way of deterring the Russians because I was frankly, worried that we hadn’t seen not only the end of Russian hacking but that they would escalate.
I was most concerned not with our voting machines. I was most concerned that they would start dumping forgeries among real documents and it would be impossible to separate the two. Now, the other point I wanted to make though beyond deterrence is deterrence alone is never going to be enough and cyber hacking is definitely not going to be enough. If the Russians want to get into your computer or the Washington Post’s or mine, they will. They’re capable enough and no matter how well you educate your workforce, they will keep trying, whether it’s spear phishing attacks or others until they succeed. The only way we really protect the country at the end of the day is by inoculating the public, by informing them: this is what the Russians do. This is how they do it. This is what we need to look out for. We have to be aware that they may dump forgeries the next time and we have to develop a consensus, and this may be the hardest thing of all.
That whoever is the victim, whether you benefit or you suffer, that we will all reject the foreign interference. We have to somehow forge the consensus that we lacked in the 2016 election.
Ignatius: Let me ask you also—you mentioned concern about additional Russian actions, the dumping of false material. There are new revelations that the Russians were more active in going into the U.S. voter registration databases and other areas that were directly related to the election than had been realized before. And the question this raised for me and I’m sure for many people is how safe is our basic election process? How vulnerable are we? Russia is not the only country that has these capabilities or that would like to influence and manipulate our politics. How bad is this problem and what should we do about it?
Schiff: I think we are vulnerable and we’re vulnerable not because it would be very easy. It wouldn’t for the Russians to hack into machines in a substantial enough way to alter the outcome. But they don’t have to alter the outcome. They just have to create enough doubt about the outcome to cause paralysis or discord in the United States and we are vulnerable to that. So I think there are some obviously, very basic things that we can do, need to do. Every voting machine ought to have a paper trail. Most of them now do. Some don’t and some still don’t. Some even in swing states still don’t. That’s negligent as far as I’m concerned. We’re going to have to examine not only our machines, which may or may not be online, but to whatever degree we update those machines of where we make use of either Wi-Fi or we make use of thumb drives.
Because if you can get into the thumb drive, then you can get into the system. And once you’re into the systems, then you’re capable of creating any kind of havoc. So there is more work that we need to, but I still believe the most profound vulnerability is not the ability to tamper with our machines. That is vulnerability but the greatest vulnerability is to be able to influence public opinion by hacking and dumping, but dumping forgeries, by the clever use of social media and paid trolls and bots to drive stories to the top of people’s feed. They don’t even have to be untrue but if you can drive even true, but negative stories to influence key voters, you’re much more likely to affect outcomes than probably trying to hack into a voting machine.
Ignatius: In that regard, the president has called repeatedly for investigation of what he says was massive voter fraud that prevented him from getting the absolute electoral majority that he thinks he had. That obviously, has the effect of encouraging doubt among the public about the integrity of our election systems. What do you think about that call for an investigation of fraud?
Schiff: I think it’s a complete sham and I have to say, the very first—to put it politely in the polite crowd here, “Oh, my god” moments way days after the election when the president made the completely baseless claim that millions of undocumented immigrants had stolen the popular vote. Completely baseless and I saw that and I thought to myself, “Oh, my God. This man is not going to grow with the job. He is not going to grow with the job.” And the way he campaigned on the campaign trail is who we got as president of the United States. It wasn’t an act. This is who he is and he is not going to change. And I have to say, I feel like the kind of stereotypical spouse in a bad marriage who keeps thinking their spouse is going to change. Because even now, and against all reason, I keep thinking, “Okay, maybe he’s going to change.” And then I’m reminded the following day, “He’s not going to change.”
[LAUGHTER] But in terms of this claim in now classic fashion, you have a completely bogus claim that now has to be substantiated by the creation of a bogus commission to look into the bogus claim. This is not unlike the calling on our committee to look into the bogus claim that Obama had illegally wiretapped the president. And all of this spins off all of this time, money, expense on nonsense. The reality is there is a small amount of fraud; voter registration fraud and that usually takes place when you have situations where you can hire people to gather voter registrations of new voters and you pay them a buck a signature for every new voter they register. And some of the people who are paid to do this fill out a bunch of fake cards so that they can get a buck apiece or maybe $5.00 apiece for these cards that people don’t know are fake.
But those fake cards don’t turn out to vote because they’re not real people. That does exist. That on a limited basis and the county prosecutors prosecute these people. There’s no evidence that this is an epidemic problem or that the local DA’s are not capable of dealing with it. But actual voter fraud, which is what the president is suggesting—that is, that people who came here illegally, not eligible to vote actually voted by the millions—that’s complete nonsense. There’s never been any evidence of widespread voter fraud. So here we are. He’s going to set up this commission and I think what ultimately the use is going to be is people maybe, they’ll forget his baseless claim that originated all of this or maybe they’ll take whatever work they get out of this partisan commission and they’ll use it to justify laws to suppress voter turnout in minority communities.
That may be where that commission is headed and of course, that would be a terrible abuse.
Ignatius: Just to ask, as you were talking about this abusive relationship—I sense that you’ve had. I was thinking about what Director Comey quotes President Trump as saying and he says this in so many different ways, which is his version of that. “Everything I say, they attack. They don’t give me a break.” So is there a danger for Democrats, for critics of the president to be so strident in their criticism that his supporters end up saying, “This is stacked against us. We voted him in and the people are trying to take it away from him.” How would you respond to that?
Schiff: Well, I don’t think that Democrats can or should shy away from calling out the president when he violates the norms of office, the letter of the law, or anything like it. What the president just did in reneging on our commitment globally on climate change was one of the single most destructive acts of a president that I can remember. Because we have just given up the leadership globally on one of the most important issues to our friend and foe alike. We have abdicated our leadership. The most painful headline to me, which has all too much come to pass, was when Angela Merkel came to visit the president and the headline was, Leader of the Free World Meets Donald Trump.
And I don’t think Democrats can shy away from raising alarm about this. It is worthy of alarm and I don’t think we should shy away from pointing out that we’re turning our back on human rights, that we’re turning our back on the promotion of democracy. There are people all over the world who still depend on us, who will always depend on us. Young secular opponents of the regime who gathered in Tahrir Square or who are in jail or facing jail still look to us. They’re not going to look to China. They can’t look to Russia. There’s no one else for them to look to. People in the Philippines who are the victims of this extrajudicial murder campaign. They’re still looking to us and we have a president now who is patting their leader on the back for this campaign. We need to raise the alarm about this. We can’t accept this as normal. But I will say this: it would be a mistake for us to focus only on what we oppose about this president. And one of the things I think the preeminent challenge from my party is when I looked the results of the election and that big red area in the middle of the country and those vividly blue coasts—it’s tempting to think, “Okay, we are just irreconcilably divided as a nation.”
But when you get beyond that and you get to the ground level and you look into the communities, you find out that there are commonalities in the red and the blue. And one that was most striking to me is that in communities where people were coming because there were jobs and the communities were growing, they voted for Clinton. Communities that were shrinking; where people literally felt left behind; they voted for Donald Trump and I think the challenge from my party is we have to answer the questions people are asking in those communities if we’re going to be in the majority, if we’re going to retake the White House. We need to answer the very basic question: what do you offer to give me hope that my life will be better? That my kids’ lives would be better in a world that is small, but global and where automation is replacing a lot of the jobs of our mothers and fathers.
They deserve an answer to that question. The Republicans certainly don’t have one. All they’re getting is, “You’re going to win so much you’re going to be tired of winning.” Well, they’re not winning. They weren’t winning before. They’re winning even less now. And they’re not going to win under this president, but we also have an obligation to tell them, “This is what we can offer.” We’re not going to make a false promise about bringing back jobs if we can’t bring them back. But here’s why we believe we can bring better jobs to this community. That’s what I would like to see us focus on. Not so much about the message, but agenda. How do we answer what I think is the fundamental economic question of our time?
Ignatius: Let me bring you back to the details of the investigation that’s underway in your committee in particular. You have subpoenaed Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, former National Security advisor, and I believe you’ve also subpoenaed company records that he kept before coming to the White House. Assuming that he does testify before your committee, I think it would be really interesting for this audience to get a sense of the kinds of questions that you’d like to ask him. The things that you think are important for General Flynn to address.
Schiff: I think one core area that we’ll want to get to the bottom of with General Flynn is what were the nature of his contacts with the Russians? And in those contacts, was he acting as his behest or was he acting at the behest of the president? Was he acting at the direction of the president? And one the aspects of this that I find most troubling about the firing of Michael Flynn is the White House is informed by Sally Yates that their National Security advisor has put himself in a compromising position. That he has lied to the vice president, that the vice president has misled the country and the president doesn’t act and weeks go by before the president does anything and he only acts because the press revealed the information about Flynn’s contacts with the Russians. And then the president is angry. Not at Michael Flynn, who he continues to defend and we saw in the Comey testimony that he still thinks Michael Flynn, the guy he just fired a day before that conversation with Director Comey—he’s mad at the press for revealing this.
So does that indicate that Michael Flynn was acting at the director of the president in the discussions that he was having? Does that indicate that Michael Flynn was being dishonest about those contacts with the knowledge or at the direction of the president of the United States? These, I think, are very important questions. But obviously, those are surrounded by other questions. There are allegations now, that you’ve seen that Jared Kushner had his own private meetings, talked about setting up a secret channel with the Russians. And I have to say, I’m deeply disappointed in General Kelly. To a lesser degree, in General McMaster, for saying anything that would suggest that this is normal, appropriate, and desirable. It isn’t. There’s nothing normal about it. This is not the same as a backchannel communication by an existing government over a hostage release or something of that nature.
This is dealing with a hostile power by a not-yet government using the Russians’ own diplomatic facilities if those allegations are true. So, I would want to know whether the one was related to the other and are they part of a bigger hole. These are just some of the questions that I would want to know.
Ignatius: On the question of the request to the Russians for use of their embassies communications facilities; you said, and I quoted you in a column. “You have to ask, “Well, who are they hiding the conversations from?” And it’s an interesting question where there’s really only one conceivable answer. They’re trying to hide it from the United States government. And I just want to ask you to think out loud a little bit about the question that you posed. Why on earth would there be an effort to do that at that period? When the Syrian war was at such a sensitive stage when Secretary Kerry was so deeply involved in his own conversations with the Russians? Apparently, to have a secret communications link was to share information about Syria. Can you help us unthread that and make any sense of it?
Schiff: There’s another possibility as well and they’re not mutually exclusive. There may have been a desire and likely was a desire to hide the conversation from our own government. But there also is likely a desire to hand the conversation from the American people and so the question is why would there have been either, or both? There could be an explanation as benign, although that doesn’t seem like the right word here. That they believe that it would be giving a bad impression given all the Russia allegations and they wish to avoid giving that bad impression. Of course, there could be something far more sinister afloat. That is, they wanted to have conversations that our government and our public was not aware of because they wanted to change U.S. policy in a way that was not in the U.S. interests. But, may have been related to the fact that the Russians just helped their guy get elected president.
That, of course, would be the most malignant explanation. And the real answer could be somewhere between those two polls. We don’t know and indeed, at this point, we’re still operating on a mere allegation of this conversation—purported conversation with Mr. Kushner. So there’s a lot we don’t know and I think our challenge is not trying to predetermine what we think the conclusion is going to be, but if there is any way possible for us to get answers and do so in a non-partisan way and share that with the country, I think that has to be the objective.
Ignatius: Have you asked Jared Kushner to testify before your committee? It said that he’s preparing to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. What about your committee?
Schiff: We want him to come before our committee as well and I don’t want to get into too many particulars, but he is certainly someone we want to talk with.
Ignatius: Asking a little bit more about your committee and the state of play. Your chairman, Devin Nunes last April, after he made a visit to the White House, to the EOB to look at evidence of unmasking—it was said unmasking of names, an incidental collection of information about the Trump associates. An investigation by the House Ethics Committee began and he announced that he would be stepping aside from oversight of the Russia investigation. And I think many people, certainly, I’m one of them, have wondered whether that amounts to recusing himself from the investigation and if so, why is he as committee chairman, continuing to issue—I believe the committee just issued subpoenas last week for information about unmasking. Is that consistent with stepping back from the investigation by your chairman?
Schiff: No, it isn’t and I’m always struck and maybe it’s my legal training—by the degree to which we focus so much on the terminology and so much on the actual content of the decision. And I was struck by this during the campaign when there was this vigorous fight over whether we should call the challenge “radical Islamic terror” or not. My question was always—okay, let’s call it radical Islamic terror. What does that mean in terms of how we change our policy? What’s the impact of using that label? You can certainly see the negative impact in terms of relationships with allies and the degree to which we might be galvanizing a whole faith. But let’s assume that there’s a rational basis for this apart from the political and rhetorical one, what consequences flow from this?
Well, in the case of the stepping aside or recusal, for me, they were synonymous. If you’re not recusing, then what does step aside mean? But I would think whatever you call it, at a minimum, you’re setting an expectation. You’re not going to be the decision-maker on the Russia investigation. And one of the most important and powerful tools we have is the power to subpoena uncooperative witnesses. The committee rules in the first instance give that power to the chairman. The chairman has recused or stepped aside. Under, I think, any interpretation of either term, you would expect—and I certainly did. I think the public did—that he wouldn’t be the one to decide whether to compel someone to cooperate in the Russia investigation. So our rules provide that the chairman can delegate that to others. That should be delegated to Mr. Conaway in consultation with myself. It also allows for committee votes. Either would be fine. One more efficient than the other, but either would be fine. But to have someone who has stepped aside or recused themselves continuing to insert them self in that way, I think betrays the representation that was made.
We also have an oversight responsibility on a whole host of other issues and of course, the challenge, I think for those of us on the Russia investigation, but also in my role as ranking member on the full committee is we have to be able to conduct all of that business, which is non-Russia business and so it’s a challenge. But what Mr. Conaway and I are doing is trying to keep our focus on getting the Russia work done and now allowing the degree to which we get buffeted by other forces to interfere with that and similarly, I’m trying to compartmentalize all of the other work our committee has to do so we get that done and not let disagreements over subpoenas and other issues affecting the Russia investigation get in the way of that important work.
Ignatius: Let me in the time that we have remaining ask you about another of those big issues that your committee looks at and that’s really important to the country and to the world, and that’s terrorism. We just have been through another really terrible period in London and in Manchester before that and I think there’s deep concern that ISIS has the ability to inspire people to commit these acts of violence, that there may be networks and plots that are still in training. Let me ask you to talk about where you see the terrorism issue, whether you see ISIS as still a potent threat, what the issues you’d like more attention paid to in this regard are.
Schiff: ISIS is still an overwhelming threat. Al-Qaeda is still an overwhelming threat and you have to imagine that al-Qaeda, having been eclipsed in the public conscious is looking to do whatever they can to reclaim preeminence and they’re always one aircraft disaster away from reasserting themselves or some other spectacular tax. So they haven’t gone away and indeed, in Syria, they’ve become more powerful than ever. We are going to see as a result of the success of the military operations in Syria and Iraq, a lashing out by ISIS in other places and to people that are tempted to think, “Well, then there’s just no end to this, no answer to this.” The reality is we need to eliminate their sanctuary. We need to eliminate their so-called caliphate. That gives them the resources to plot and plan, the luxury of time and space to do it, and even though in the near and midterm, it may result in more attacks in the West; it’s a necessary prerequisite to ultimately vanquishing this scourge,
We also have to acknowledge that as much as we love to say there’s a silver bullet here, there isn’t. This is going to require a really comprehensive approach to dealing with the problem. In Britain right now, I think they’re grappling with the fact that they have very liberal surveillance laws already. They have a liberal pre-arrest detention policy already. They are well-staffed already compared to other European countries in terms of their resources on task.
They do have to deal with the problem of some of the balkanization of their communities and those are long-term problems. The problem of prisons serving as an incubation center for terrorism is also something that has to be addressed. None of this is going to be done overnight. The social media use, the slick social media use won’t be done overnight. Certainly, the Silicon Valley platforms have a role to play, law enforcement has a role to play. Community-based organizations do. Mental health experts do and as much as there’s a temptation in the political world to say, “Get tough on terror is the answer or use this one approach as the silver bullet”—we’re going to have to use a whole range of approaches with much greater intensity of resources, sophistication. It’s going to be a long-term endeavor, but that’s what it’s going to take.
Ignatius: So a final question and then we have to bring this to an end. I think we’d all be interested in your evaluation of how the CIA is doing in this period of great turmoil in our country, is subject to lots of attacks and unusual statements from the White House. How is Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director doing in that job? And finally, how are we doing it with our intelligence partnerships, or liaison relationships, which are so central to how we get information?
Schiff: In terms of the agency, I think that the director is doing a good job of helping to maintain good morale in the agency, looking at the organizational issues. He didn’t go in there and just simply upend everything his predecessor did merely because his predecessor did merely because his predecessor did it. I take issue with some of the things he has said. We’re back in the business of stealing secrets. That was kind of an unnecessary dig on his predecessor. The agency has always been in the business of stealing secrets and it’s not as if Director Brennan was some kind of a passive, non-aggressive CIA director.
Ignatius: No, but he did say that they weren’t in the business of stealing secrets.
Schiff: He said that I think in the context of we don’t violate U.S. laws. We’re not stealing the information from Americans. I think that was the point he was trying to get across, not that the CIA isn’t in the business of gathering foreign intelligence. And so apart from a few exceptions like that, I think that Director Pompeo is doing the right things, saying the right things. Mostly, I think he is trying to keep his head down and out of the orbit of the president when it comes to any of this nonsense. That is perhaps an impossible task. And of course, he’s one of the people that was allegedly asked by the president to do certain things that we’ll also have to get to the bottom of. In terms of our liaison relationships, we have more damage control to do than ever. Well, maybe not t ever. At post-Snowden, we had a lot of damage control to do. Post-Snowden was probably a far more significant challenge for the entire IC in terms of repairing relationships. But nonetheless, there has been, I think a real diminution in trust. Not from one liaison service to our own. But some profound questions about whether they trust the president in a meeting with the Russians in the Oval Office, whether they can ask people to risk their lives on behalf of the country if the country doesn’t seem to stand up for the ideals that have made some people really the best of those that share information with us. They do it for ideological reasons. If they don’t believe in America anymore. If they don’t believe in the idea of America, why risk their lives?
And if I could, this gets to, I guess, maybe a good point to end on, although it’s not one that will give people in the country that piece of mind that you were asking about earlier. I really think that the much broader context of all of this and one of the reasons I care so much about the Russia investigation is it’s not an effort to relitigate the election like the president wants to suggest. It’s not even just about that election, as significant as that was. But it’s about an effort to really tear down the whole idea of democracy. The feedback you got when you were in Russia about Russians gleefully finding that the U.S. is much more fragile than they thought. That in fact, if you look at a lot of the barometers of where we’re headed, through most of my life, the world was headed in a more democratic direction toward greater freedom of speech and greater exercise of religion and the freedoms were expanding. We’ve reached an inflection point where if you look over the last several years, certain freedoms are actually on the decline and I think Putin is one of the leaders of that autocratic movement that has adherence in Erdoğan in Turkey and el–Sisi in Egypt and Duterte in the Philippines and Poland and Hungary and elsewhere. This is a time when we really need to step up our leadership, our defense of liberal democracy and I think that’s ultimately what’s at stake.
Ignatius: Congressman Adam Schiff, we’re glad you’re not keeping your head down. We’re really glad that you spent this hour with us and just uncommonly frank and clear in answering questions. Thank you for coming. We hope to do more similar programs like this, Washington Post Live, but we thank you for starting off the year.
Schiff: My pleasure. Thank you.
Ignatius: Thank you very much. It was a treat.