The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Adam Schiff points to a second insurrection — by members of Congress themselves

In his memoir, the House Intelligence Committee chair argues America barely passed Trump’s “stress test” of American democracy

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: Accompanied by staff and Capitol Police officers House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff walks to proside over the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman during a House impeachment inquiry hearing concerning President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Tuesday November 19, 2019. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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MIDNIGHT IN WASHINGTON: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could

By Adam Schiff. Random House. 510 pp. $30.

How do you know when democracy is threatened?

Well, an actual physical assault is a good tip-off. “Be prepared to don your gas mask in the event the room is breached,” a Capitol Police officer warned Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and his fellow lawmakers in the House chamber on Jan. 6, as rioters penetrated the building. “Be prepared to get down under your chairs if necessary.”

Schiff begins his memoir, “Midnight in Washington,” with scenes of that day, recalling that, as they huddled in a secure location within the Capitol complex, some of his colleagues were already considering whether to impeach President Donald Trump for inciting the attack. But the violence against the Capitol — carried out when lawmakers gathered to certify the 2020 election results — was not the only offensive against the American experiment that Schiff witnessed. “What took place inside our chamber, with the challenge to the electors, was every bit as much an attack on our democracy,” he asserts. “We can reinforce the doors and put up fences. But we cannot guard our democracy against those who walk the halls of Congress, have taken an oath to uphold our Constitution, but refuse to do so.”

In effect, there were two insurrections, not one, Schiff argues, and he is more interested in the insurrectionists wearing suits and ties than in the shirtless ones in buffalo horns. “We came so close to losing our democracy,” he writes, looking back on the varied political and legalistic efforts to overturn the 2020 vote and to convince the public that the contest was illegitimate. “The system held, if barely.”

As the chair of the House Intelligence Committee and the lead manager in Trump’s first impeachment trial, Schiff is properly remembered as one of the former president’s primary antagonists. (“Shifty Schiff” and “pencil neck” were just two of Trump’s many Twitter insults for Schiff, the clearest evidence of his fixation.) But “Midnight in Washington” is more than just Schiff’s damning recitation of Trumpian offenses against American institutions. It is, overwhelmingly, a rebuke of Republican lawmakers and administration officials for letting it all happen, for failing to stand up to Trump. “The story of how good people were persuaded to abandon their beliefs and ideology, their dedication to something larger than themselves . . . is the one that I wish to tell,” Schiff writes.

And he tells it well. “Midnight in Washington” can be self-serving and score-settling and fawning at times — it is a politician’s memoir, after all — but it presents a persuasive case, befitting a former prosecutor, for how the erosion of checks on executive power is one of the most destructive legacies of the Trump years. And even as he provides insider details on how congressional investigations and impeachments really work (“the threat of a perjury charge can really sharpen the memory,” he deadpans), Schiff highlights individuals who responded to Trump’s “stress test” of our democracy either by defending the system or by capitulating to this “uniquely American brand of authoritarianism.” This book is one more prosecution, a 500-page closing statement on an era that has not yet closed.

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Schiff hurls plenty of words at Trump — calling him “a petulant child,” “weak” and “unbalanced mentally” — and accuses him of politicizing America’s intelligence agencies and treating the Justice Department as his personal law firm. But Trump does not get all the credit, or blame, here. The Republican Party was already headed in the direction that he would take it.

According to Schiff, Exhibit A is Benghazi. He points to the pre-Trump congressional investigations of the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya as proof that GOP lawmakers and right-wing media figures were willing to construct an “alternate reality,” he writes, “in which their political opponents were indifferent to American lives, had acted with sinister intent, and then sought to conceal their betrayal.” Schiff, who served as one of five Democrats on the select committee investigating the attack, describes the episode as a “bridge” to the GOP’s future, a bridge that Trump would happily cross and burn.

Schiff never thought Trump would win his party’s presidential nomination — “I will forever be humbled by that blithe miscalculation,” he admits — and was shocked by how quickly congressional Republicans succumbed to the allure of influence and the new president’s demands. Schiff had worked well with Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) in the past, for instance, only to see his Intelligence Committee colleague bind himself ever more closely to the GOP’s new leader. Power does not necessarily corrupt, Schiff writes, but it does reveal, and the Trump presidency was a moment of revelation.

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You don’t have to get down in the muck with Rudy Giuliani or Corey Lewandowski. Just consider former House speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who “proved all too pliable” before the president, Schiff writes. Then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whose memo criticizing James Comey gave Trump cover to fire the FBI director, was not a “bad or corrupt person,” Schiff writes, but was just “not strong enough to stand up to someone who was bad and corrupt.” And though Schiff has nothing but disdain for lawmakers such as Reps. Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows (who also served as Trump’s chief of staff) and Kevin McCarthy — men who exemplified the notion that “truth was for suckers [and] principle meant nothing” — his greatest disregard is aimed at former attorney general William Barr, whose public misrepresentation of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report before it was released constituted an act of “deliberate and monstrous deception.” Barr’s true nature was concealed during his service as attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, Schiff writes, because he was surrounded by people of integrity. “By Donald Trump’s side, he appeared a different man altogether. . . . Tethered to a man of low character, he showed himself to be the same.”

Schiff enjoys quoting himself at considerable length — his speeches on the House floor, his questioning of witnesses, his interventions during the impeachment trial — and although his words are often eloquent, the cumulative effect can be tedious. Equally distracting is his incessant praise for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She is “smart, strategic-thinking, and articulate”; she is “tenacious” and “intrepid”; and she was the “Supreme Allied Commander” of the impeachment trial, which she led with instincts that were “as good as any trial lawyer.” The only person awarded more deference than Pelosi in this book might be Laurence Tribe, Schiff’s old Harvard Law professor, whom he and his colleagues consult and invoke with reverence at key moments. “Larry Tribe will tweet at us!” someone warns during an argument over the president’s rights in an impeachment proceeding. (He did.)

But it is precisely in such mundane, insidery moments that “Midnight in Washington” proves an engaging and informative read. Schiff wallows in the debates and strategizing: What is the best timing for issuing a subpoena when you worry the White House will move to quash it? How do you treat a witness who has lied in the past but might be crucial in a future phase of an investigation? And how do you argue a trial when so many members of the jury — that is, U.S. senators — do not even pretend to be impartial? Such matters are hard to grasp while watching hearings or impeachment proceedings on television, yet they underlie what we see and learn there. Along with all its warnings and recriminations, “Midnight in Washington” is a manual for how to probe and question power, how to hold leaders accountable in a time of diminishing responsibility.

It is a manual that may come in handy again. Schiff warns that the Capitol insurrection was hardly the last gasp of Trumpism, and he views the proliferation of state legislative efforts to restrict voting rights as “nothing less than insurrection by other means.” Trump’s appeal drew from a mix of economic turmoil and racial prejudice, Schiff writes, but as soon as we begin to believe that our differences and inequities cannot be legitimately reconciled through an open electoral process — that is the moment democracy is lost. “Our present circumstances are desperate,” he writes, “but we do not have the luxury of despair.”

Schiff notes in passing that, while drafting his committee’s impeachment report, he found inspiration in the report of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate, which “read like a novel, not a thesis” and included a “plainspoken” preface by Sen. Sam Ervin. That report is instructive for its substance, not just its style. The North Carolina Democrat reiterated that the Watergate scandal was not “invented” by President Richard Nixon’s enemies; that Nixon had sought to “destroy” the integrity of the electoral process; that departments and agencies had been treated as the “political playthings” of the administration; and that the president’s men seemed to believe that their leader “is above the Constitution, and has the autocratic power to suspend its provisions.” Midnight has struck in Washington before.

How to prevent future such transgressions? “Law is not self-executing,” Ervin lamented. “Unfortunately, at times its execution rests in the hands of those who are faithless to it.” In this, his judgment is identical to Schiff’s, and their insights, decades apart, speak to one another. “The only sure antidote for future Watergates,” Ervin concluded, “is . . . intellectual and moral integrity in the men and women who achieve or are entrusted with governmental or political power.”

Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including:

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