On the morning of August 5th, President Trump fired off one of the more consequential tweets of his presidency so far:
Trump had, up to that point, denied in every way possible that his son, Don Jr., and his campaign had colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election. “There is No Collusion!” went the near-daily refrain from the 45th president. But on the first Sunday in August, with his former campaign chairman on trial in Virginia and Special Counsel Robert Mueller bearing down on him, the president at last admitted to what we already knew: His campaign did meet with a Russian lawyer close to the Kremlin to hopefully get some damaging material on Hillary Clinton. The Trump campaign had colluded with Russia — or at least it tried to.
This shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone paying attention. It certainly came as no surprise to Congressman Adam Schiff of California. For months, Schiff, a 14-term Democrat, had been explaining ad nauseum how the evidence for collusion lay in plain sight — if you cared to look at it. Here's how Schiff put it in an interview with CNN late last year: “But we do know this: The Russians offered help. The campaign accepted help. The Russians gave help. And the president made full use of that help. You would have to believe that these were all isolated incidents, not connected to each other. It just doesn’t make rational sense.”
Schiff is the Democratic Party's leader on all things Trump and Russia. You've probably seen him on CNN or MSNBC — he's on TV most days of the week — or heard him on NPR. No politician has better explained each new twist in the Trump-Russia saga and then put that twist into context in a clear, comprehensible way.
I spent a year getting to know Schiff for a profile in The California Sunday Magazine. Over that period, he became a Democratic star, a celebrity of sorts. I was drawn to Schiff because his rapid ascent captured something unique about this moment. I describe what that is and more in the story, and I'd encourage you to read it. You're going to hear a lot more about Adam Schiff in the months and years ahead.
The Quiet Anger of Adam Schiff
Two years ago, he was a respected but little-known congressman from Los Angeles. Today, he’s the face of the Democrats’ opposition to Trump.
The California Sunday Magazine | July 18, 2018
“I GOT A PICTURE! I GOT A PICTURE!” A middle-aged woman named Barb plops down into a chair, out of breath. She’s wearing jeans, Crocs with painted toenails, and a T-shirt that says TRUMPCARE: IT’S TRUMP UNIVERSITY BUT YOU DIE. On an evening in late spring, she has staked out a front-row seat at a fundraiser for the Iowa Democratic Party held at a hotel on the wind-swept outskirts of Cedar Rapids. Barb’s friends crowd around her as she swipes through photos of her and the evening’s headliner, Congressman Adam Schiff.
The event was scheduled to begin 15 minutes ago, but Schiff is pinned in a far corner of the room, mobbed by party activists and local politicians who want to shake his hand or take another selfie. Schiff is here to raise money for Democratic candidates in Iowa in the run-up to the November midterms. He headlined a fundraiser in Des Moines earlier in the afternoon, and he was in St. Louis the day before on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s main vehicle for winning back the House. Wherever Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and his Democratic colleagues need him, he’ll go, and lately, that’s meant just about everywhere.
After an introduction by the state party chairman, Schiff finally takes the stage. Dressed in a crisp blue suit and sensible dress shoes, he cultivates a cheerfully beleaguered demeanor. He speaks without notes and tells jokes the way a dad would if that dad had access to highly classified intelligence. (One involves confusing Trump adviser John Bolton with pop singer Michael Bolton, which elicits scattered laughter.) He doesn’t raise his voice, doesn’t try to fire up the crowd. But then he doesn’t need to. The 175 people in attendance rise to their feet and applaud him without his saying a word.
Before Donald Trump’s election, in 2016, Schiff was a respected if obscure member of Congress. In Washington, he had a reputation as an expert on national security and intelligence. People beyond the Beltway knew him, if they knew him at all, as the congressman with the Hollywood sign in his district or the one who shared a name with a beloved character on Law & Order. His admirers used words like “solid,” “reasonable,” and “mild-mannered.” If there was a knock on him, it was that he was too solid, too reasonable, and too mild-mannered. The kind of guy who at the end of a long day removes his tie but leaves his collar buttoned at the neck.
Then came Trump. For the past 18 months, as the senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Schiff has played a leading part in the investigation into Russia’s interference in our elections and possible collusion with Trump and his aides and associates. At the same time, he has worked to fend off the efforts by his Republican colleagues and Trump’s media allies to derail the investigation. All this has vaulted Schiff into the unlikely role of being the Democrats’ leader not just on the investigation but on all things Trump and Russia. He has become a fixture on cable TV and the Sunday talk shows, distilling and explaining the latest developments in the marquee saga of the Trump presidency.
In accordance with the inside-out logic of the era, Schiff’s weaknesses have become his strengths. For many, he is the voice of reason, a steadying influence, the sober narrator in a time when chaos reigns, basic facts are under assault, and members of both parties resort to hyperbole and outrage to rile up the base. Strangers stop him on the street and at the airport and in the aisles of CVS to thank him. His Twitter following is rapidly approaching the 1-million mark, making him one of the most popular members of Congress on the platform. “There’s such a desire for something you can hang on to in the midst of these gale-force winds, and there’s a solidity to Schiff that is really appealing,” David Axelrod, the former adviser to Barack Obama, told me. “At a time when everything seems to be going crazy, there is a sense of bland is beautiful.”
The day before Schiff landed in Iowa, The New York Times had published a list of 49 questions drawn up by Trump’s legal team that reflected what special counsel Robert Mueller hoped to ask Trump if the president sat for an interview. Before the audience in Cedar Rapids, Schiff riffed on this latest bit of news, and then, in what’s become a trademark move, he urged his audience to step back from the fast-twitch news cycle and to remember the larger implications of the Russia story. “Even among Democrats, there is a tendency to think too narrowly about what this all means,” he said, “that this was just about helping Donald Trump in the last election or just about hurting Hillary Clinton.” But that line of thinking, he continued, misses the bigger picture. “This is part of Russian interference in nations throughout the world to undermine the very idea of democracy, and if we don’t understand that, then the remedy is going to be the wrong one.”
Schiff, who turned 58 in June, finds himself in an enviable, if strange, position: Thanks in no small part to the man he calls “the worst president in modern history,” he has now become a political star. It’s a turn of events that has taken almost everyone by surprise, none more so than Schiff himself. He had expected a Hillary Clinton presidency, he told me in one of our many conversations in the past year, and Clinton’s people had said there might be a job for him in the new administration. Now, sitting in an empty lobby bar after his speech, he was still trying to make sense of recent events and his own place in them: “I would have not predicted this year or last.”