It’s been less than two days, but one storyline of the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump has already emerged: Democrats are leaning heavily on California’s Rep. Adam Schiff to make the case against the President.
Schiff spoke for two hours straight on Wednesday afternoon – as the opening arguments by the House impeachment managers got underway. And it was Schiff who handled the press availability before Wednesday’s proceedings – even when the questions weren’t directed at him.
To wit: CNN’s Manu Raju tried to ask House Judiciary Chairman (and fellow impeachment manager) Jerry Nadler of New York a question about his decision on Tuesday night to accuse the Trump White House (and Republicans) of a cover-up in the Ukraine investigation. Schiff, with Nadler standing silently by, told Manu: “I’m going to respond to the questions.”
So, OK then!
The primacy of Schiff in the Senate trial comes after a House impeachment investigation in which the Californian – and the Intelligence Committee he chairs – were front and center, conducting the interviews with key witnesses in both public and private. That was a contrast to the way in which the investigation into Richard Nixon was run, with the House Judiciary Committee handling the bulk of the work in that situation.
None of this is by accident, of course. California’s Speaker Nancy Pelosi named Schiff the chairman of the committee in 2015 – a decision reflective of their close and long-standing relationship. (Pelosi herself once served as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.) That relationship goes back at least two decades; Pelosi was involved in raising money for Schiff’s 2000 race, in which he defeated Republican Rep. Jim Rogan, who, wait for it, had been a House impeachment manager in the Senate trial of Bill Clinton.
“Speaker Pelosi has tremendous respect for him and trust in him,” fellow Californian Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna told the San Francisco Chronicle of Schiff last fall. “She respects his intellect, she respects how he presents himself on television, she respects his judgment. … They have a very close bond.”
That relationship stands in stark contrast to Pelosi’s behind-the-scenes clashes with Nadler over impeachment. Pelosi was not so secretly unhappy with the aggressiveness of Nadler’s Judiciary Committee in terms of seeking Trump’s impeachment.
“Both Pelosi and Nadler, who have served in the House together for more than 25 years, insist their relationship remains strong. But their rift over impeachment is getting harder and harder to paper over amid Democrats’ flailing messaging on the topic and a growing divide in the caucus.”
As the impeachment drama unfolded in the House, it became clear that Nadler was being sidelined in favor of Schiff – at least somewhat. And Pelosi’s decision to name Schiff as the lead impeachment manager – the tip of the spear, as it were – is also indicative of who she trusts to best handle this hugely delicate matter.
In the main, Schiff has rewarded Pelosi’s trust. His one misstep was in his somewhat dramatic reading of the White House transcript of a July 25, 2019, phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump immediately seized on Schiff’s description of the call. “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, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people,” tweeted Trump in September. “It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”
(Worth noting: As I wrote at the time, this controversy is a tempest in a teapot. Before paraphrasing Trump’s call, Schiff says this: “In not so many words, this is the essence of what the President communicates” – making clear he is not directly reciting from the transcript.)
Schiff has emerged as one of Trump’s favorite figures for ridicule. According to the invaluable Trump Twitter Archive, the President has tweeted (or retweeted) about Schiff more than 300 times since 2017. “Why did Nervous Nancy allow corrupt politician Shifty Schiff to lie before Congress?” Trump tweeted earlier this month. “He must be a Witness, and so should she!”
In spite of Trump’s attacks – or maybe, at least in part, because of them – Schiff has been given more and more responsibility to carry the case against the President to not only the Senate but the country as well.
And if the opening hours of the Senate trial are any indication, we are going to be seeing a lot more of Schiff in the days and weeks(?) to come.