Adam Schiff’s profile is on the rise in Democratic politics – but nobody seems to know what the California congressman will do next.
Until recently, Schiff was a well-regarded, but low-profile lawmaker in a Los Angeles market where he had to compete with two dozen other members of Congress for local media attention and 52 others for state-level press.
His post as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee – placing him at the center of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the potential involvement of President Donald Trump’s campaign – changed all that.
Now, Schiff is a day-to-day, hour-to-hour fixture on cable TV news. He earned a stop on the 2020 early-state speaking tour. And he even got a nickname – albeit a recycled one – from Trump: “Little Adam Schiff.”
And his mocking response to Trump early this month got nearly 80,000 retweets. “Mr. President,” Schiff wrote, “I see you’ve had a busy morning of ‘Executive Time.’ Instead of tweeting false smears, the American people would appreciate it if you turned off the TV and helped solve the funding crisis, protected Dreamers or…really anything else.”
Schiff is now prominently battling Trump and House Republicans with a 10-page memo written in response to a four-page GOP version drafted last week alleging misconduct by the FBI in its process of obtaining a surveillance warrant for a Trump adviser in 2016.
“He’s gone from one of 53 to one of the upper echelon of the California delegation, and he’s overnight become a political celebrity within Democratic circles in the state,” said Dave Jacobson, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator.
It’s all stirred up questions about what Schiff will do once the Russia probe concludes.
It was long an open secret that Schiff coveted Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat. And the transition seemed natural: Feinstein is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a leading Democratic foreign policy voice in the Senate; Schiff plays a similar role in the House.
But Feinstein last year opted to run for re-election in November 2018, leaving Schiff without a next move.
He’s well-known in California thanks to regular appearances on cable news shows, where he is a leading voice on the Russia probe. Internal Democratic surveys there have found his name identification in the high-50s across the state, which has turned him into a sought-after endorser of Democratic candidates even though Schiff doesn’t have a history as a heavyweight figure in internal party politics. And with $3.3 million in his campaign bank account despite running in a safe Democratic district in the Hollywood area, he has money to spend.
But there’s no place to go in California politics, with the governor’s race already crowded with well-known Democrats.
Schiff, a former assistant US attorney who was first elected in 2000, could wait for a Senate opening – Feinstein’s seat, eventually, or potentially that of Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, who is seen as a potential 2020 presidential candidate.
Schiff personally wouldn’t comment on his political future.
“Congressman Schiff is focused on his job overseeing our intelligence agencies and investigating Russia’s interference in our election,” said Schiff spokesman Patrick Boland. “Whenever possible, Schiff is also traveling around the country to help Democrats take back the House.”
But those close to him, while insisting that he remains totally focused on the Russia investigation and is not plotting his next political office, say they think a national role is a more likely his next move.
Schiff stirred up chatter that he could be weighing a presidential run in December, when he visited Columbia, South Carolina, and railed against Trump at a conference hosted by the state Democratic Party.
More likely, Democratic strategists say: A prominent role in a future president’s Cabinet.
Schiff’s original dream job in politics was US attorney general, a source close to him said. That, or a post like FBI director or CIA director, would make sense given his experience on the intelligence committee, the source said.
He could also make vice presidential shortlists if Democrats need a candidate with security credentials – though being a white man in a party with a diverse base, and not being able to help the ticket carry his home state given that California is already so overwhelmingly Democratic, are drawbacks.
Some in the party have also pointed to Schiff as someone who could replace Nancy Pelosi and become the next House Democratic leader – particularly if Pelosi departs and the party can’t settle a battle between two other current members of leadership, Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Joe Crowley of New York.
Whatever his next step, Schiff’s aggressive challenging of Trump and Republicans in the Russia probe has won him admirers.
He is “seen as an American hero with the Democratic base,” said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist who launched a firm specializing in messaging around the Russia investigation.
“The ‘I got this’ vibe he exudes during his TV appearances breaking down the Russia investigation is only slightly more popular than his legendary social media barbs calling out Donald Trump,” Petkanas said. “It’s going to be a crowded field in 2020 but he has earned a place as a serious contender for any job he seeks, whether it’s for commander-in-chief or as a member of the Cabinet.”