For someone bearing quite literally the weight of potentially altering the nation’s history, Congressman Adam Schiff is surprisingly calm. The House Intelligence Committee chair representing Burbank and charged with helming the impeachment inquiry of President Trump has a packed Veterans Day — photoshoot, interview, two veterans’ events, all before wheels up at 1:30 p.m. for a flight to Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, he appears to be in good spirits, joking about his artistic stint as a photographer while at Stanford. This affability stands in contrast to his blunt diagnosis of — borrowing a phrase from President Gerald Ford — the “long nightmare” the country faces.
“Many of us had concerns for [Trump’s] fitness for the office, but we had no idea how truly awful he would be as president,” recalls Schiff. “This is the first president in history who gets up in the morning determined to find new and inventive ways to divide the country,” he adds.
Indeed, this divisiveness is something the congressman — one of the few members of Congress with a security detail — has personal experience with. “I have people who come up to me at the airport, in rapid succession one will say ‘Are you Adam Schiff. I just want to shake your hand, you’re my hero.’ And the next two will come up to me and say ‘Why are you destroying our country?’ It’s a regrettable feature of our times,” he explains with equanimity.
The mantle of impeachment was one the congressman took up reluctantly and he cites his original fear that it would be “a wrenching experience” for the country (“I think it always is.”). But the president’s “own actions” left little choice.
“One of the things that made it a necessity to proceed with an impeachment inquiry, and perhaps more, is that the president engaged in this conduct the day after Bob Mueller testified,” Schiff explains, referring to the president’s attempt to pressure Ukraine’s government into investigating the Bidens. “That told me that this president has concluded that he’s above the law and that there is no accountability for anything that he does, and that’s dangerous, to have an immoral president who is above the law is a very dangerous thing.”
Days before the start of public hearings, Schiff is solemn and, in some ways, resigned. “It’s impossible for me to see [the president] changing,” admits the 10-term congressman, who sees impeachment establishing “a deterrent to this conduct being repeated by this or any president in the future.”
Despite Schiff’s rapid ascent to the national stage — he wryly comments that while he wasn’t a “household name by any means,” it’s a “bit of a popular myth” that he was unknown before Trump — the Burbank representative has not neglected the issues facing his constituents.
In response to the homeless crisis facing Los Angeles, Schiff recently introduced H.R. 4239, the Affordable Housing Incentives Act, which would incentivize growing stocks of public housing. He’s careful, however, to contextualize the crisis and its complexities.
“This is really a national catastrophe, we see it in cities all over America. Like so many complex problems it’s not going to be solved by one approach,” the congressman explains. “It’s going to have to be a really comprehensive approach at the local, state and federal level.”
And while he recognizes the importance of incentivizing affordable housing, ensuring affordable healthcare and boosting stagnant incomes, none is a panacea, according to Schiff. He wants policymakers to tackle the root cause. “The economy just isn’t working for too many families,” he says. “If you can’t solve that problem, the rest are Band-Aids.”
When we ask what it would take to spur both policymakers and citizens into addressing the crisis with more urgency, Schiff is measured, crediting Angelenos for stepping up.
“I think the public to its credit has been willing to tax itself to try to provide homes for people and to try and deal with the problem,” he explains. “Los Angelenos have been very generous in trying to do that. Yes, there are certainly NIMBY issues, but in the bigger scheme of things people have really been willing to devote resources to try and help; they want to make sure those resources are well spent.”
Perhaps Schiff’s way of communicating is a welcome contrast to the bombastic style of his foil in the White House. Substance over rhetoric.
The congressman also cited the recent passage of a resolution asking for the U.S. government to recognize the Armenian Genocide as “one of my proudest days on the House floor” and “enormously exhilarating and meaningful”; it was the fruition of 19 years of struggle alongside his many Armenian-American constituents: “They never gave up and I never gave up.”
When asked what’s next for him — the Senate or even higher office don’t seem out of the question — Schiff demurs, telling us he isn’t ruling anything out but is currently focused solely on the Herculean task at hand, taking it day by day. Nevertheless, he sees the future of the Democratic Party as a fusion of moderate and progressive voices, citing Californians’ desire for principled leadership and maintaining their position on the nation’s vanguard.
As the interview winds down, the subject of film arises. The amateur screenwriter recently received a poster from his constituents that reads, “This Aggression Will Not Stand, Man” (The Big Lebowski is Schiff’s favorite comedy). He mentions that the big-screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird helped inspire him to be a lawyer and recalls the pride he felt when one of the children of Gregory Peck (who played Atticus Finch) told him that their dad would have been proud of what Schiff’s doing. It’s a sentiment that dovetails nicely with the public servant and what he wants his legacy to be: “Someone who understood his duty and defended our democracy when it was in its greatest danger.”