For the third episode of Politico Magazine’s Susan B. Glasser’s new podcast, The Global Politico, she sat down with Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. A transcript of Glasser and Schiff’s conversations, and the podcast, follows:
Well, hello. This Susan Glasser from the Global POLITICO. I’m delighted to welcome you back, and to welcome our guest today, Congressman Adam Schiff. He is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which means he is right in the middle of one of the biggest stories in the world today; which is the question of what on earth is going on with Donald Trump’s White House, and Russia, and leaks, and alleged influence and meddling in American elections. Congressman Schiff, he joins us today from Capitol Hill.
Story Continued Below
Glasser: I’m so grateful to you for coming back on to talk with us this afternoon about, really, a crazy week, even by the standards of this one-month-old administration. So, first of all, what is your feeling about the state of play today, on where we stand with the story of President Trump, General Flynn, and the Russians?
Schiff: Well, it has been a very topsy-turvy week. And it’s still all the more bewildering because we now know that the president was informed that Mike Flynn had misled people. And that, to me, is very troubling because he was aware the vice president had misrepresented the facts to the American people. And that was okay until he was confronted with it by this story in the The Washington Post. And that was what forced the firing of Mike Flynn.
And even now, [President Trump] seems to be trying to apologize to Flynn for firing him. So the whole thing is very bewildering. How much was this designed to undermine President Obama’s sanctions on Russia for their very interference in the presidential campaign—interference which was designed to help Donald Trump?
And more, probably, we need to look at this in the context of Russian influence measures in the United States. And this gets back to the campaign. We know, of course, that Russia hacked Democratic institutions; was dumping documents. We know that they were using their paid media platforms, their RT TV, as well as thousands or hundreds of paid trolls to push fake news to try to influence social media.
But we need to know more about any contacts that the Russians had with anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign, or any U.S. persons that might have been facilitators of Russian illegal activities during the campaign. So all this is really the subject of our investigation. And our investigation, by necessity, just got broader because it now has to include Flynn’s contacts with [Sergei] Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.
Glasser: Well, tell me a little bit about the investigation. There seems to be a difference of opinion among Republicans in the Senate versus Republicans in the House. The Republicans in the Senate seem to be taking a somewhat more aggressive stance. You have the Senate majority leader saying absolutely they would need to investigate these new allegations involving General Flynn, and what exactly happened between him and Vice President Pence and President Trump.
But on the House side, where you are, your colleague, Chairman [Devin] Nunes, suggested, basically, this isn’t that much of a big deal. Do you see a partisan fight brewing over this?
Schiff: Well, I had a chance to discuss this at some length with the chairman yesterday. And we have the agreement now to look at the communications between Flynn and the ambassador as a part of our investigation. The chair has assured me that there won’t be any relevant line of inquiry that we will be denied the ability to investigate.
So, I found that encouraging. And this really ought to be, has to be, a bipartisan investigation. Russia is a major threat to the country. They are doing their best to dismantle democratic institutions in Europe, just as they did in Russia itself. And just as they tried to do in our own country, in the election. And we’re facing a major challenge from this country. They’re now violating one of the missile treaties. They’re stationing ships off our coast to spy on our naval programs, and harassing some of our ships.
So there’s a real confrontation with a real malignant power. And I think it requires us to, in a very bipartisan way, make sure that the nation is prepared; that we’re taking appropriate steps to inoculate ourselves against further meddling in our democratic affairs, as well as protecting our allies.
Glasser: Take us behind the scenes a little bit. Obviously, these are highly sensitive and confidential matters that you’re investigating. But give us a little bit of a sense of how an investigation like this proceeds. You’ve announced it—this is not a brand-new investigation. Now, its scope is being broadened somewhat to include the new allegations. But how active a probe is it? How much are the intelligence agencies cooperating with you? How much do you feel that we had the information before the election that we might have wanted to come out sooner?
Schiff: Well, the way I think we ought to do this investigation—the way, harkening back to my days as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles—is you generally begin by gathering all of the documents. In this case, these are documents that underlie the intelligence community’s conclusion that we read publicly, in that public report about Russian involvement in the election. We want to make sure that the intelligence community got it right. We want to look at the raw intelligence, and make sure their conclusions were substantiated. But that’s only one piece of it.
We also want to look at any contacts between Russia and U.S. persons. Any U.S. person’s complicity in what took place. We know in Europe, for example, that the Russians are involved with blackmailing people; that they’re involved in extorting people, and gathering compromising material on people; in funding right-wing parties. They, you know, very much make use of indigenous citizens of those European countries to help move things in the Russian direction. And we need to find out, did they also do that here?
So it begins by gathering the appropriate information, identifying the witnesses you need to talk to, talking to those witnesses, following their leads. And you know, I think a big question for us, as we do this investigation, is will we have the cooperation of the FBI where we need it? Because we can’t replicate what they do. We can’t become our own FBI. And that means they’re going to have to share with us. Have they been investigating this? If they have, what have they investigated? What is yet to be investigated? So that we can make sure that this is thorough.
We don’t have the resources, as Senate or House committees, to be dispatching people undercover to Europe or elsewhere, to find out some of this information. So we really need to know what have they pursued already, and what remains to be done.
Glasser: You know, you’ve become increasingly vocal, in a public way as well, questioning President Trump, questioning Russia, and why it has been seeking to influence our elections. The other day, you had a tweet that caught my eye where you talked about Trump and his policy of quote-unquote “appeasement toward Russia,” and asked the provocative question of, “Why? We’re going to get to the bottom of this.” Do you think the investigation will be able to get to the bottom of what it is that really is going on between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump?
Schiff: Well, I certainly hope so. That’s going to be my aim, that we do this thoroughly, and objectively, and that we leave no stone unturned. Again, a big question is, will we get the assistance of the FBI in doing this investigation? And that will determine a lot of what we’re capable of doing.
But, you know, if you look just at the most recent allegations involving Flynn, there’s a profound question about whether he was acting on his own, or whether he was acting at the behest of the now president, or others in the administration. Who else was knowledgeable that he had misled the vice president, and in doing so misled the country?
So we certainly need to get to the bottom of that. But more broadly, we need to understand exactly how the Russians have interfered in our democracy. This is really, I think, one of the most striking developments over the last half-century; that this adversarial power succeeded in interfering, taking down our democracy, by several notches. And this is really part of their goal.
They get a lot of criticism for being an authoritarian system, and they would like nothing better than to show that the democracies, the Western democracies, are corrupt; that they’re no better than Russia. And essentially weaken the whole idea of liberal democracy.
Glasser: Based on what you know now, do you think that this interference in our elections actually made a difference, and actually did result in the election of Donald Trump?
Schiff: You know, it certainly had an influence on the election. Whether that influence was determinative, there really won’t ever be a way of knowing. Obviously, in a close election, anything could have made the difference between winning and losing. I would suspect, but this is only my own gut sense, that [FBI] Director Comey’s disclosures at the end of the campaign had as much of an influence as many of the Russian document dumps.
But you could make the argument as well that the choice of the campaigns—where they spent their money, where they focused their efforts—also were determinative. And I think all those things may be true. But of far greater significance to me than whether this was the decisive influence was the mere fact that it was an influence. And that the Russians have essentially taken off the brakes with their interference in our country.
They are far more willing to take risks now to confront us, to interfere with us. That poses some real dangers, but the biggest danger of all is if we don’t take this seriously. And right now, I think the president is dangerously naïve about Putin’s intentions and just wanting a different relationship; hoping for a different relationship has never worked with Russia, and it’s not going to work here.
Right now, I think the president is dangerously naïve about Putin’s intentions.”
Glasser: You know, one of the more jaw-dropping aspects of, obviously, a jaw-dropping story, is also President Trump’s decision to basically turn it around on the intelligence community, and go to war with them. And to say, in effect, “Pay attention to the leaks that resulted in this information about General Flynn becoming public,” rather than the underlying question. And he has consistently been very critical of the American intelligence community, notwithstanding the fact that he’s their new commander-in-chief.
You deal with these professionals all the time. You’ve been in this role during President Obama’s tenure, as well as now into the one-month-old Trump era. What are the consequences that you see playing out of Trump going to war with the intelligence community? Are they, in fact, at war with him, do you think? And how much should we be worried about leaking from them?
Schiff: You know, they’re certainly not at war with him. And there’s nothing the intelligence community would like more than to have a good working relationship with the commander-in-chief. We are the customers of the intelligence agencies. They provide their best assessments. They risk their lives. They risk other people’s lives to get us the very best information.
But of all the consumers, of all the members of Congress, the administration, the intelligence community views the president as their top customer. They pride themselves on how many of their reports make it into the president’s daily brief. That’s sort of the gold standard within the intelligence community. Did their work product become so important that it made it onto the president’s desk?
Well, of course, we know now that not much makes it onto the president’s desk, no matter how good it is. It’s watered down, sifted, simplified, filtered through—I guess it was Mike Flynn for a while, now maybe it’s Steve Bannon. We don’t know. That’s troubling enough, I think, within the intelligence community.
But now you have a commander-in-chief who shows open distain for what they do, and what they risk their lives for. And I just think that’s enormously destructive. The president ought to be relying on their work. And not taking it uncritically, but recognizing its incredible value. They’re the best at what they do in the world, and he’s going to need that information to make good judgements.
The other thing is, when he does have to make a judgment, when he done have to make a decision about what the Iranians are doing, or the North Koreans, or the Houthis, he’s going to be doing that on the basis of intelligence. And he’s going to want not only our country, but other countries, our allies, to have confidence in what he says. And if he’s discrediting our intelligence agencies, he’s pretty much telling the world they can’t be believed.
And if he’s making false statements continually like, “Millions of undocumented immigrants are voting,” then he’s not going to be believed. And we need a commander-in-chief that is credible. And so, there are a lot of risks here. You know, you can add to them, at the moment, a very dysfunctional administration, and a dysfunctional National Security Council.
Glasser: Is this is the kind of worry that you’re already hearing articulated by some of the folks that you deal with in the intelligence community? How worried are they about the morale of their agency? What are they telling you?
Schiff: There are a lot of concerns about where this new president is coming from, and what kind of relationship he’ll have with the intelligence community; whether he will value what they do, and what this will mean for the country. You can imagine, if part of your job is recruiting people who put their lives on the line for America because they believe in the idea of America; they live repressive regimes, but they believe in America. And then they see things coming out of this White House that really call those beliefs into question.
You know, the Muslim ban, for example, was very destructive to our standing in the world, and our relationships with a lot of allies, and our ability to recruit people. So there’s a lot of consternation with the intelligence community. I mean, how often does your primary customer compare you the Nazis? So I am very concerned about it. I hope there’s a change. I hope maybe General Mattis gets the situation under control, or the new national security advisor. But I suspect the problem will be, at the end of the day, the man at the top. And unless he grows in this job, it’s going to be a very rocky four years.
There’s a lot of consternation with the intelligence community. I mean, how often does your primary customer compare you the Nazis?”
Glasser: You know, congressman, it’s hard to believe we’re talking about four years. It’s only been four weeks, and it’s pretty exhausting, isn’t it?
Schiff: It is.
Glasser: Well, listen, this is probably as good a place as any to pick back up with the conversation, which we started in your office on Capitol Hill the other day. You know, I think you had really a global context for Putin, and Russia, and why it is you’re so concerned about these events. It’s probably an important point for our listeners to hear right now.
Schiff: It’s not solely an issue of Russia’s hacking into our election; as serious and as staggering as that was, it’s not simply the relationship between Trump and Putin, but rather, I think we are in a new war of ideas, in which autocracy appears to be on the march, and we have to confront it. We need really strong leadership in the free world.
You see in many parts of Europe a retreat to nationalism, a de-emphasis on human rights. You see in the countries of our NATO allies the imprisoning of journalists. We’re seeing an awful turn away from representative government, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. And so, I view this in that context. And there’s a lot to be concerned about. This president has a pathological unwillingness to criticize anything the Kremlin does. Now, it may be as simple as the fact that Putin says nice things about him, that the Russians effectively helped him get elected president, and he has a world view where you’re either for him or against him, and the Kremlin was for him.
This president has a pathological unwillingness to criticize anything the Kremlin does.”
It may be as simple as that, or there may be more to it involved than that, and one of the things that we intend in the investigation we’re doing in the Intelligence Committee is to find out what were the—all the tools and all the vectors that the Russians used to influence our election. Clearly, they were hacking information; clearly, they were dumping information; clearly, they had their paid media platforms there—Russian TV, their Sputnik. They had paid media trolls, but was there more? Was there direct interaction with the Trump campaign or people associated with the Trump campaign?
All of these things, I think, are part of a thorough and objective investigation, which is what we’re setting out to do. I hope we will do it, and I think it couldn’t be of greater significance. We’re going to see the Russians do this again. We’re going to see them try in Germany, in France, in other European countries. They may try again here in the United States, so we need to fully understand just how—what devices, what levers they’re pulling, so we can help our allies defend themselves, and so we can defend ourselves in the future.
Glasser: You know, I think that’s the thing that has a lot of close observers of the Russian relationship—you know, perhaps even more concerned than the general public—is that people like you who’ve been read into the intelligence, have this heightened level of concern and conviction that, in fact, the Russians have really mounted what you called a crime just now, but clearly is a new level of cyber-attack into our politics and those of our allies, than anyone had really contemplated before. Why do you think it is that the rest of the political class in Washington hasn’t really caught up with this level of alarm? Is it really because you’ve seen things that are just so much more harrowing than what are out there publicly already, or is it simply a failure of, you know, thinking?
Schiff: I don’t think it’s a function of any particular information or insights that the Gang of Eight have that others don’t have. We may have [a] better understanding of the basis of some of the sources and methods of gathering the intelligence, but the basic fact that the Russians hacked our election, that they dumped documents, that they did this with the motivation of hurting Clinton and helping Trump, that’s all now very public.
And that ought to be enough to mobilize people. I think part of the reason why it hasn’t been sufficiently alarming gets back to something President Obama said in the press conference he held just a couple weeks before the turnover of authority, where he talked about the Russian hacking. And he said that we have become so—such—so vigorously partisan that it is having the effect that even the party of Ronald Reagan would somehow excuse, overlook, indulge the fact that the Russians are hacking into our election.
That because it helped the GOP in this election, that therefore it’s okay. And that’s quite staggering. It says a lot about just how polluted our political system has become, that concerns of partisanship would be elevated to the degree where we would be accepting of foreign intervention. Now, one of the things that I think Democrats need to take responsibility for is we knew the Russians were doing this before the election. Senator Feinstein and I, you might recall, we got out ahead even of our own administration and intelligence community made public attribution, but the intelligence community soon thereafter, in October of last year, said very publicly, “The Russians are doing this.”
We Democrats were not successful in persuading the American people why they should care. And that’s something that we have to confront. I think it’s something that is still a problem.
Glasser: Well, you know, it’s interesting. So, you pointed out—I’ll toot your horn because, you know, you were pretty modest there. September 22nd, you and Senator Feinstein, very early in the campaign when you think of all that happened later, put out your joint statement saying that there was a serious and concerted effort, quote-unquote, by the Russians to influence it. You had no sort of question marks attached to that statement. Tell us a little bit the back story. Why did you put it out at that point so early? What was the response you got when you tried to get the Obama White House to do something more before the election?
Schiff: Well, Senator Feinstein and I were very concerned that here you had a foreign adversarial power hacking our election, trying to influence our election, and the American people really fully weren’t brought into the confidence of the administration. They weren’t told what was happening, and we thought this was information that the American people really needed to have; that they could do with that information as they will, but they need to be trusted with the facts.
I think there was a real reticence in the administration to talk about this publicly for a couple reasons. Part of it was they didn’t want to be seen as putting their hand on the scale, as interfering or doing this because they wanted to impact the results of the election, so I think there was a hypersensitivity doing anything that might be perceived as political.
And the other thing is, I think they were concerned about playing into the narrative that the election was rigged, calling into question the results of the election. They thought somehow that this would magnify that problem, and then finally, they, I think, were concerned about Russia escalating. Now, from my own point of view, and I think Senator Feinstein shared that point of view, to the degree that people, including Donald Trump, were claiming the election was going to be rigged, this, I think, was important information for the American people to have.
I think it would have been far more perilous to only tell the American people after the election, “Hey, the Russians were involved. The Russians did this; we knew it, we didn’t tell you.” I think that would have been a far bigger problem. So, I never subscribed to that, and I thought that the danger of escalation was frankly greater if we did nothing, said nothing than if we called out Russia on what it was doing.
Glasser: But it’s fair to say that you and Senator Feinstein don’t just put out a statement like that, that you probably did try to directly convince the Obama White House to go along with something first, before you came to that?
Schiff: Absolutely. You know, we tried to get them to make attribution; ultimately, they did. We never felt it was a question over what level of evidence there was. The evidence was quite compelling and we knew that early on, so yes, we did. And in fact, we worked with the administration and the intelligence communities—community to make sure that we vetted what we were saying, that we weren’t going to say anything that would be revealing of sources and methods.
So, we wanted to do it carefully and thoughtfully, but nonetheless, it was a result of our inability at that point to persuade the administration to do it on their own.
Glasser: And the resistance was in the White House, the State Department?
Schiff: You know, I think it was at least in terms of the conversations we were having, predominantly in the White House, among the National Security Council.
Glasser: So, Obama in general—and we’ll go back to this question of the investigation right now. A lot of people are asking me, as I’m sure they’re asking you, how did we get here, right? How much do we—obviously, we still don’t really understand the nature of Trump’s feelings about Vladimir Putin, but we do understand that the American-Russian relationship has gone off track in some significant way that led to their decision to intervene in our election, well before they or anyone knew that Donald Trump would be president of the United States.
Let’s go back in time a little bit. You have been somewhat critical of the Obama administration, in feeling like perhaps it didn’t course correct quickly enough when it came to the challenges posed by Vladimir Putin. It’s my own theory that if Trump was not now the President of the United States in a way that has sort of overwhelmed all foreign policy discussions, we might be having a more critical conversation about the Obama foreign policy record, and things like Syria, for example, and Russia. What’s your view about why we ended up in this place with Putin? Was it just inevitable, or you know, were there things that we could have done differently?
Schiff: I think to some degree, it was inevitable. I think a lot of it has to do with who Putin is, and how he views the world. I think what probably catalyzed things more than anything else were the demonstrations in Russia in 2011. The Russians believe, and I think as a former KGB guy, this is very much Putin’s point of view, that the intelligence community generally and the CIA particularly, are responsible for all the color revolutions that happen all around the world.
They’re responsible for the Arab spring that—you can see the hidden hand of the CIA in everything. And this may be Putin sort of projecting what he wishes the capability of the KGB was; I don’t know. But nonetheless, I think they saw the United States’ hidden hand behind these mass demonstrations. They certainly saw Secretary Clinton, who was overtly critical of the conduct of the Russian elections.
And I think from Putin’s point of view, it’s all about preservation of the regime, and restoration of Russian greatness. And these demonstrations threatened both. There’s nothing he cares more than the perpetuation of his own rule. The only thing I think he fears that could take him down would be a collapse of the economy and popular uprising, popular demonstrations, and those demonstrations growing out of control.
So, I think he decided that he was going to take the gloves off. And I think he also decided that the best way to distract from Russian’s chronic economic problems, its demographic problems, its downward trajectory, was by foreign adventurism, kind of a well-played gambit in world history, but certainly Russian history. So, the invasion of Crimea, the deployment of troops into Syria; these are all efforts to restore Russian influence, Russian greatness.
The effort to take down our elections, to reveal infighting between the Bernie Sanders and the Hillary Clinton camps, to trumpet any problems in the United States; all of this is an effort to essentially put the Russian flawed thugocracy on a par with American democracy, which is part of the reason why it’s so grievous to me, when I see Donald Trump say things like he did the other day, when he was confronted by Bill O’Reilly, who said, “Well, Putin’s a killer.” And Trump basically said, “Yeah, but we’re not really any different, the United States.”
It’s just the most incredible gift to Russian propaganda, and it just kills me that this is coming from the president of the United States.”
That is so singularly untrue and damaging to our credibility. It’s just the most incredible gift to Russian propaganda, and it just kills me that this is coming from the president of the United States. I don’t think we’ve ever had a more harmful statement come out of the Oval Office than that one, at a time when we really are in this battle of ideas with autocracy, Russia, and this trend towards nationalist concentration of power.
Glasser: You know, congressman, it’s amazing even to hear you say these things. You’re such a, you know, by temperament, a mild-mannered person. You’ve been described as a moderate’s moderate. You’ve been described as a policy wonk, and yet it feels to me that this is tapped into something, deep in your sense of outrage in a way that, you know, just looking at your Twitter feed over the last few weeks, I can almost see the progression of astonishment and anger and dismay. These are not the kind of statements, my guess is, you ever used in a long career in public life.
Schiff: That’s absolutely true. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback on my Twitter feed these days, because it is very much against type, in terms of where I come from. I certainly didn’t feel this way about George W. Bush. I haven’t felt this way about other Republican presidents. To me, this one is dangerous in a way that I didn’t feel any of the others were. All the others, I have serious policy disagreements with, but we’re not out of the mainstream.
This president is well out of the mainstream, and I think the things he says, the things he does, pose a grave danger internally. I think they just aggravate divisions in the country, and I also think that it is causing a collapse in our standing around the world. So, I’ve never been more concerned about the future of the country than I am right now, and I think that you hear that reflected in my observations on things, which are, as you say, not generally prone to hyperbole.
Glasser: Well, again, that’s what—I think that’s actually why we’re having this interview today, is that, you know, I have followed you for a long time, and just really over the last couple months, I noticed, wow, you know, Congressman Schiff—he’s a ranking member of the Intelligence Committee. Here he is becoming much more public, so, one is there sort of a Trump effect, right, which is that he’s engaged us all in this discourse on Twitter, and he’s drawn us all into that conversation. But then, two, I think in an interesting way, right, people are now speaking out in—and whether it’s protesting in the streets, or taking to Twitter in ways that are not standard for the ranking member of our Intelligence Committee to do—let me read a couple examples of these.
I think one of your aides told me that you’ve gotten perhaps the most response to President Trump’s tweet—or the other day, when he talked about the so-called judge who ruled against him on the temporary refugee ban. And you wrote, in response to that, “This so-called judge was nominated by a so-called president, and was confirmed by the so-called Senate. Read the so-called Constitution.” And you tweeted that at Donald Trump. What were you thinking when you wrote that? Is it just I’ve got to speak out?
Schiff: It is. You know, this is not the role I wanted to play, not the role I expected that I would be playing. I, like I think everyone else thought that Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. I know my GOP colleagues were just as astonished that Donald Trump ended up winning the election. But I find myself, I think, in a very important role all of a sudden, which is, you know, helping to lead the opposition to a president who I think is—poses a real danger to the country and to our future prosperity, and to our place in the world, to how people view Americans, to whether people still look to America as the leading light and inspiration to the rest of the world, a place they hope one day to immigrate to.
So, I really feel cast in the role of having to speak out, be part of the loyal opposition, and in terms of Twitter, this is a medium that he uses to communicate, and I do believe when you’re in the opposition, you have to communicate in each and every media that your opponent is communicating, and in this case, he makes ample use of Twitter, and we have found that it’s valuable to respond. And I do think sometimes using humor, sometimes dark humor is a way to get people’s attention, and there’s certainly plenty of cause for dark humor these days.
Glasser: Well, speaking of dark humor, I was struck by one where you, the other day, tweeted, “@POTUS took a strong stand against Dr. Evil, effectively barring him from the country. Unclear whether the ban would include his clone, Mini-me.” Do people get your use of irony and sarcasm here, or do you get a lot of Twitter trolls just going after you?
Schiff: Well, you know, these days, you’re going to get Twitter trolls no matter what you do or say, but there are, I guess, a fair number of people now who are following me, who must get my somewhat deranged sense of humor. But sometimes I read these tweets from our president, and I—or I listen to his statements, and they’re so simplistic, and some of them are just so downright ridiculous that it’s hard to respond without just pointing out how absurd they are.
And this particular tweet I was responding to, where he was trying to keep evil out of the country, you know, it—my reaction was, well, is he suggesting that there are others who are pro-evil, that are supportive of an evil immigration policy? That’s absurd, and so, kind of the absurdity of that, I think sometimes the best way to deal with it is through humor and pointing out the absurdity in what someone is saying.
Glasser: Well, I have to say, listening to you, it does remind me actually of our time in Russia, right, where humor was a long-held response, first to the 70 years of the Communist regime, and even when I lived there, during the first term of Vladimir Putin as president, where humor quickly replaced the media as Putin acted to take over the independent media. It was their version of kind of Saturday Night Live, but even edgier. Victor Shenderovich, who I thought was always probably the most astute commentator on politics, and you know, unfortunately, humor is what you use in authoritarian regimes.
Schiff: Well, I don’t think it’s a surprise that Saturday Night Live has become so popular, because it’s a tremendous outlet for people. People are feeling a kind of a tension and anxiety that I’ve never seen after an election before. I was getting hundreds and hundreds of calls and email and letters from people who said that after this election, they were having trouble sleeping, they were having trouble eating; it was affecting them viscerally in a way no other election had. I had never heard that kind of thing before, and I think that people are finding things like Saturday Night Live and Melissa McCarthy’s recent Sean Spicer imitation as cathartic, as a welcome source of relief.
And I think it really is—it does help sometimes cut through the tension, but nonetheless, these are really unprecedented times. Every day, there’s something so astonishing that in a normal administration, you would have a month to think about, talk about, debate over, and hear—maybe have an hour or two before the next incredible falsehood, indiscretion, nonsensical statement, misnomer, invented event—Bowling Green massacre—you name it. It’s one thing after another.
Glasser: Well, that’s right, and so, let’s talk about—that’s the sort of public spectacle that we’re all witnessing, or deciding on Twitter to take part in, in some way. Let’s talk about the substantive job of intelligence committee ranking member, and how that’s changed as a result of this extraordinary moment. First of all, are you hearing lots of concerns from inside the intelligence community about President Trump’s attack on them.
Schiff: You know, I was certainly hearing a lot of concern about the president’s ongoing war on the intelligence community; his comparing the IC to Nazi Germany, and you know, his use of intelligence in quotes, and just the way he was denigrating the IC. And, I mean, this is very dangerous. He’s going to have to rely on the intelligence community professionals if he wants to be successful as president, and the degree to which he was undermining them was also undermining the likelihood of the success of his own administration.
The Muslin ban, for example, which is apparently not a ban and not about Muslims—notwithstanding that’s what they call it, and have called it, at least until they decided not to call it that anymore. This is already affecting our intelligence partnerships in other parts of the world. I was in Iraq three weeks ago, and obviously, we’re working hand in hand with the Iraqis to try to retake Mosul, to try to extinguish ISIS as much as we can, at least deprive them of any major land holdings in Iraq. We’re competing for influence in Iraq with Iran. This was the most tremendous gift we could have given to Iran.
There are different camps in Iraq, some that work more closely with Americans, some that work most closely with the Iranians, some that want to open up a relationship with the Russians, and basically, we just pulled the rug out from under those that are in the so-called American camp. And things like that, this is more than him just badmouthing the IC; this is making their job more difficult, it’s making the job of our service members more difficult, more dangerous; it’s making the success of our mission more unlikely, and that is just real damage, any way you slice it.
Glasser: So, you see a practical affect from the refugee ban in terms of actual intelligence that we’re not able to collect, as a result of that?
Schiff: Absolutely. This is going to put those relationships in jeopardy. People are going to have a more difficult time cooperating with us because they can’t be seen to be working with a country that would ban people of their faith. It’s also going to mean that our service members aren’t going to be able to promise those that are working with them that they might have a chance to immigrate to the United States with their family, if the going gets tough, and they’re identified, and people come after them to kill them. We can’t say that we have their back.
And what does it mean that we have to say to those people, “Well, we can’t get you to the United States, but we’ll get you to another country that doesn’t ban Muslims.” What kind of position is that to take? So, a lot of the words are doing damage, a lot of the policies are doing damage. We’re picking fights with people who are our best friends, like the Australians. None of this is really advancing our core national security interests.
Glasser: You talk to a lot of Republican colleagues up here on Capitol Hill. It’s true that it’s a more partisan time, but certainly you guys are still on speaking terms in many ways, and you’re conducting this investigation together. What do you think they make of all of this? Republicans have been the party that has been the most suspicious of Russia, and it was Mitt Romney, after all, in 2012, who deemed them the greatest geopolitical threat. Have your Republican colleagues just changed their mind about Russia? Or are they distraught at this turn of events?
Schiff: They haven’t changed their mind about Russia. I think they are as deeply distrustful as ever. They don’t want to cross this president yet. I think they all realize the time is coming, but at this point, other than a few very notable people, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, most of the Republicans want to keep quiet and out of sight. They don’t want to contradict the president, they don’t want to pick a fight with the president. They are all hoping they can get something from this president, and they’re also mindful of the fact that he does have a base of followers in their districts that they would rather not come after them.
So, I think they’re trying to be on their best behavior right now, but they have no illusions about Vladimir Putin; none of them think he’s a friend. They all recognize the great evil that he’s doing bombing civilians in Aleppo, invading his neighbors, murdering journalists. So, I don’t think they have any new view—I don’t think they’ve been persuaded by Donald Trump that somehow Russia is now our friend.
So, they’re doing their best to stay out of sight when Russia comes up, and you probably don’t find a lot of eagerness when you go to ask them about, do you—what do you think about the president’s policy on this? But I think that’s going to be of limited duration. You know, they hope right now to get tax reform. They hope to get other things. They hope to—you know, if they have a—they’re from a district where they want to do surface mining, they hope to repeal the regulations on surface mining. If they’re from a district that—where they want to do grazing on federal lands, they hope to get the grazing in. They all want to get their thing before they’re forced to confront this president. But they know that time is coming.
Glasser: So, at The Global POLITICO, one of my goals in starting this podcast was to really make sure that we showed people that there are people in these jobs, and that was, I think, one insight that a friend of mine who worked at the White House a long time—really smart guy, brilliant person on Russia—said to me, “If there was one thing he learned as a—actually being in the room and in the meetings—was that people matter.” In Russian actually, there’s a saying of Stalin’s, still cited widely today, “The cadres decide everything.” You know, in other words, who really matters.
So, where do you come by your views, and your orientation toward Russia in all of this? I read with great fascination that one of your signature cases as a lawyer out of Harvard Law School, when you were working in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, was with the prosecution of Richard Miller, an FBI agent caught in a sex for secrets affair with a Soviet honey trap, so-called, described as Svetlana. What was that experience like, and has that effected your views of Russia and the former Soviet Union?
Schiff: Well, that was a fascinating case where Svetlana Ogorodnivok used the classic sort of sex for secrets, and seduced a FBI agent named Richard Miller, and it was a challenging case to prosecute because Miller was kind of a wily fellow and when he was under surveillance by the FBI, he was able to make the surveillance, recognize it, and went into his superior’s office and laid out a defense that was, in fact, acting as a double agent; that the Russians, the Soviets had thought they were recruiting him, but he was, in fact, only using it to spy on them.
He was ultimately convicted. I don’t know that that was my sort of formative experience with the Soviets. I was—I’m old enough to remember the Cold War, but I—honestly, I know I say this to a lot of your listeners, but I get a lot of my information from open source, from podcasts like yours, from the newspaper. I continue to think—and maybe I’m a dinosaur—that the newspaper is still one of the best sources of information anywhere.
Glasser: My household thanks you. I hope you’re a paying subscriber to the failing New York Times.
Schiff: Well, you know, this touches on another thing that concerns me greatly, and I guess it gets back to that original question you asked me. In terms of this war of ideas that we’re in, we have a lot at stake in a rules-based international order, and so when the president talks willy-nilly about other countries leaving the E.U., or how we’re being taken advantage of by anyone, and NATO is not pulling their fair weight, and everybody is against the United States, he doesn’t seem to realize how much we have to benefit from those international institutions.
But also how much we benefit from an order that’s based on fact and truth. And so, when he belittles any poll as being fake if it doesn’t reflect well on him, or a newspaper being full of lies if it is critical of him, he is tearing down an order that is based on truth. And in its place, erecting something that is based solely on self-interest and propaganda, that really does resemble the Russian system. And you know, I am proud that the press is pushing back hard against this. I think all of us in government need to call this president out when he’s not being truthful, because we can’t get to the point of this fact-free world, because if there’s anything less in the U.S. national interest, it’s a fact-free world.
Glasser: Congressman, that seems like an important point to end on. I want to thank you very much for this conversation, for joining us. I think we’ll want to come back to you when you’ve done the investigation with your colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee into the Russian involvement in the election, and talk a little bit more about what you’ve found. But I thank you very much for your time today, and we’ll keep following you on Twitter, and I hope that you’ll keep following us at The Global POLITICO, and subscribe to our new podcast, and rate us, and give us feedback, send us ideas, as many of you already are. You can email me anytime at email@example.com, and thank you again for listening.
Schiff: Thank you. Great to join you.
Glasser: Thank you.