WASHINGTON — Congressman Adam Schiff, increasingly the Democratic point man on the investigation into allegations of overly cozy ties between President Trump and Russia, is a soft-spoken former federal prosecutor and a critic of government surveillance who may be the only lawmaker ever to draw blood from comic Stephen Colbert — literally.
Now Schiff is locked in a tense, headline-making standoff with the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, over how to proceed with a multi-tiered investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election, a probe that the White House sees as a dagger aimed at Trump’s legitimacy even though Schiff hasn’t drawn blood yet.
In the mid-1980s, fresh out of Harvard Law School and working as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Schiff prosecuted the first-ever FBI agent to be indicted for espionage in a bizarre sex-and-cash-for-secrets case. Richard Miller was accused of scheming with Soviet agents — one of whom, “Svetlana,” was his lover — to share U.S. national security secrets in return for $65,000 in cash and gold.
“I learned a lot of the tradecraft of the Russians — back then, the Soviets — how they recruited people, what they were interested in obtaining in terms of U.S. classified information, how the KGB worked with assets in the United States,” Schiff told Yahoo News by telephone on Friday.
Nearly 15 years after that case, Schiff won what was the most expensive House race in the 2000 cycle, beating Republican Jim Rogan, one of the “managers” of the impeachment trial against President Bill Clinton not quite two years earlier.
“I felt, during that race, it was hammered home to me the importance of speaking in every medium that your opponent is speaking in — cable, mailbox, radio,” Schiff told Yahoo News. “I was never a heavy Twitter user until this president — it’s become important for me to communicate through Twitter, and use humor when I can.”
In Congress, Schiff served as a top Democrat on the special Benghazi Committee and is the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee — a job that puts him in the “Gang of Eight” senior lawmakers privy to the nation’s deepest secrets.
He has emerged as one of his party’s leading voices on questions of national security. In the aftermath of revelations made possible by Edward Snowden, Schiff worked to curtail government surveillance inside the United States. He has also repeatedly called for Congress to debate and vote on authorizing the use of force against the Islamic State, rather than rely — as former President Barack Obama did — on the resolution adopted nearly 16 years ago to go after the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.
Recently, Schiff has become House Democrats’ go-to resource in the complex investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election. Last Wednesday, he sharply criticized Nunes for cutting out Schiff and the other members of the committee by going directly to the White House with supposed evidence that conversations involving associates of Trump may have been intercepted by American intelligence or law-enforcement agencies.
And Schiff called late Monday for Nunes to “recuse himself from any further involvement” in the House Intelligence Committee investigation, arguing that “the public cannot have the necessary confidence that matters involving the president’s campaign or transition team can be objectively investigated or overseen by the chairman.”
In his public remarks, Schiff more often sounds like he’s trying to talk a potential jumper down from a ledge — he’ll lay out what he sees as the most persuasive arguments in a soothing near-monotone. His Twitter persona is more combative.
But back in September, he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sounded the alarm about alleged Russian interference in the election.
“Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election,” they said in a joint statement. “At the least, this effort is intended to sow doubt about the security of our election and may well be intended to influence the outcomes of the election — we can see no other rationale for the behavior of the Russians.”
Schiff is a triathlete and marathon runner who in 2014 became the first member of Congress to participate in a seven-day charity bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for the fight against HIV/AIDS.
In 2009, he introduced the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, named after the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan. His only co-sponsor in the House of Representatives? Then-congressman Mike Pence. The measure became law in 2010.
In the aftermath of controversies over the treatment of killer whales in captivity, Schiff has also backed legislation meant to prohibit the marine mammals from being used in public displays.
And then there was the time he (lightly) wounded late-night comic Stephen Colbert. It was March 2006, and Colbert hosted Schiff for a “Better Know a District” segment. Colbert, who described Schiff’s Southern California district on camera as “shaped like a flock of diseased, feral parrots,” spent much of his time unsuccessfully trying to get Schiff to accept a $100 bill. At the end of the taping, the script called for the lawmaker to smack Colbert over the head with a prop bottle. Schiff accepted the assignment — but there was a hitch.
“He had this idea that he was going to provoke a fight to end the skit. I was supposed to hit him over the head with a stunt bottle. The assistant bringing it over slipped and dropped and it shattered. And they said, ‘Don’t worry, I have another,’” Schiff recalled. The assistant brought another bottle, which Colbert asked to examine. “I said, ‘Are you afraid I’ll hit you with a real bottle?’ And he said, ‘Actually, I am,’” Schiff said with a chuckle. “I hit him over the head with it and made him bleed.”
Colbert wasn’t seriously hurt, but required help from a nurse.
Schiff jokes that he’s gotten good mileage from the fact that his wife’s name is Eve. “Yep, Adam and Eve,” he said. Early in their relationship, they went to a used car dealership together. The “typically enthusiastic” salesman introduced himself. But when he heard his prospective buyers give their names, Schiff recalled, “He said, ‘I don’t have time for this,’ and basically turned around and walked away.”
Now, as he looks back on his groundbreaking espionage prosecution and ponders his role in the burgeoning congressional investigation into Russia’s actions in 2016, Schiff told Yahoo News that he can’t help but see a connection: “I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
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