- Show Notes
Adam Schiff is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He talks about the notorious Nunes memo, and the Democratic response he helped draft. He also gives some advice for how Democrats should position themselves for the upcoming midterm elections. (Hint: don’t focus on Russia)
Do you have a question for Preet? Tweet them to @PreetBharara, email [email protected], or call 669-247-7338 and leave a voicemail.
PB: Congressman Schiff, so pleased to have you on the show. Thank you.
AS: It’s great to be with you.
PB: So, I have so many things to ask you about and so many things that I think people want me to ask you about. We could do a nine hour show but apparently you have to vote and do other congressman like things, so we’ll try to get to the meat of matters as quickly as we can. But the first thing I want to ask you, just on a human level, cause this is something that happens to people who run across the president these days. You are the ranking member on the House Intel Committee and you have a job to do, and sometimes the way in which you do your job makes a certain person unhappy who lashes out on Twitter, among other places. He has a lot of nicknames for various people. I think he’s got some nicknames for you. I think he’s called you ‘liddle’ spelled with Ds, ‘leaky,’ various other things. How does it feel the first time you look at your phone or an aid tells you, “Look, this is what the president wrote about you,”?
AS:01:00Well, I have to say, the first time it happened it was quite surreal. I think I got a call from my communications director early one morning to say the president had just attacked me. And the first nickname he gave me was ‘Sleazy Adam Schiff.’ Initially, your reaction is, “That’s absurd. There’s no way the President of the United States is lobbing insults at members of Congress or anybody else.” But of course it’s quite routine. It takes a little getting used to, although I’ve had to because I’m, I think, five nicknames since that one. But I do remember picking up my son from camp, because this happened over the summer, and I wanted him to hear it from me rather than from a classmate and I wasn’t sure how he would react, and I said, “Eli, I want you to know something happened during camp. It’s not a big deal, but I want you to hear it from me. The president called your father ‘sleazy.'” And he paused for a minute to think about what that really meant, what the consequence of that was, and then he looked at me and he said, “Can I call you ‘sleazy’?” And that’s when I knew it was going to be okay. I told him, only if he wanted me to call him ‘sleazy junior.’
PB: My kids have been calling me sleazy for years.
AS:02:15My predominant reaction is, it’s really sad to see the office of the presidency brought so low. It can’t help but undermine people’s view of the US presidency in a way that this great office doesn’t deserve. And I guess, at the end of the day, it makes me grieve for what he’s doing to the office.
PB: Why do you think he can’t settle on one nickname for you?
AS: It’s a good question. He’s supposed to be really good at this, and the first rule that I learned on the playground is, you stick with one nickname or it doesn’t work. So, I don’t know why he keeps moving around.
PB: 02:52Maybe alliteration is harder with your name.
AS: Yeah. Well actually, with my name, he could take a lot of lessons from my friends from grade school because they did much better.
PB: ‘Shifty Schiff,’ I don’t know, has he used that one? Well, you’re not low energy, which is the nickname he gave to Jeb. And we’re going to talk about a lot of the things you’ve been spending your energy on. Before we get to the Intel Committee and the investigation that Bob Mueller’s overseeing, you and I share something in common. Everyone who listens to this show knows that the formative experience of my life was being an Assistant US Attorney and then being the US Attorney in the Southern District of New York. And you were an Assistant US Attorney in the Central District of California for a number of years. How’d you like that job?
AS:03:35It was a fantastic job. As you know, it’s a great group of people you’re working with. There’s a lot of camaraderie and a real sense of mission. I think it is one of the most fun jobs and interesting jobs in the law that you could ever hope to have. And Preet, you’ll appreciate this in a way that folks may have a lesser appreciation for that didn’t work in the office. I’ve been given a promotion ever since I left the office because people have a hard time that didn’t work in the Justice Department distinguishing between a US Attorney and an Assistant US Attorney. I was only an Assistant US Attorney, but I’m frequently referred to as a former US Attorney.
PB: Typical politician–
AS: Yeah, exactly.
PB: –inflating their resume. I get called the DA, I get called the Attorney General. Nobody knows what the titles mean. I’ve watched you as have most Americans and see how you conduct yourself in questioning of witnesses and how you present arguments in the committee. And I will tell you frankly, the first time I saw you do that, I did not know your background, I did not know you had been an A US A, and I was not surprised. How has your experience as a federal prosector, you used to go to court all the time, informed how you conduct yourself in committee?
AS:04:52It has been enormously helpful to have that background and in some ways, it feels like my life has come full circle. When I was an A US A, probably the biggest case I had was involving an FBI agent that we indicted for spying for the Russians. I was working with a great deal of FBI agents on a case involving Soviet espionage and it feels very familiar now, to be working on a similar investigation. Far more broadly, I just found the skills that I developed as a prosectors and as a lawyer useful in Congress. And one of the things that I learned as a prosector is you go in the court room, you fight it out with opposing counsel, keep it at a professional level, and when the case is over you walk out of the courtroom, you have a beer with opposing counsel, and you leave the dispute in the courtroom. That works very well in Congress also. If you don’t make the disputes personal, if you keep them over policy, at the end of the day someone who is your most vigorous opponent on one bill ends up being your ally on the next, if you don’t make it personal. So that was, I think, a very important general lesson. More particular to the Russia investigation, it’s been very useful to know basically how to conduct a large, essentially white-collar investigation: how to questions witnesses, how to know what documents you need to get, what the right processes are, how to ask the right questions, when to know you’re getting the runaround. Those are very useful skills. And it’s a particular challenge on the Intelligence Committee because we have a phenomenal staff but they’re, for the most part, trained to be analysts. The bread and butter of the Intelligence Committee is overseeing the Intelligence Agencies, it’s not generally conducting this kind of investigation. So, we are benefitted by a number of great lawyers on the committee and some spectacular analysts who are combining their talents to do the work on the Russia investigation.06:54But it certainly has come in handy to have the investigative experience that I gained as an assistant.
PB: What I have observed, also, on the part of people who have actually tried cases in court and particularly who have done criminal cases is, when they make their arguments, they don’t guild them. When they make their arguments, it’s about facts and it’s about how persuasively you can recite the facts in your favor. You know the old saying in my old office was, “You should have the court on your side by the time the judge is done reading the statement of facts, even before you’ve made your legal arguments, because you can be very persuasive without rhetoric and with bombast.” And I find that a lot of members of Congress, many of whom I have great respect for and I worked in the Senate, have not learned that lesson. They think that rhetoric carries the day, when actually what ends up carrying the day and is persuasive to people and powerful and gives you credibility over time is reasoned, measured argument. Do you have a view on how your colleagues approach that?
AS:07:55I think that’s exactly right, and it’s a good thing to keep in mind in the entire political sphere. In terms of persuasion, there’s an awful lot of hyperbole that goes on in politics and I think people find it off-putting. I think people find those who go on television or make arguments in committee that are just reciting a bunch of really tired talking points to be also off-putting. I find a very, sometimes, understated recitation of the facts much more powerful. People tease me for being calm all the time. What I find is if you’re hysterical, people just tune you out and they won’t hear what you have to say. And it’s hard now, frankly, to get anyone to hear what you have to say in an environment that has become so partisan and so vulcanized, where people’s views of the same facts differ so dramatically depending on their party affiliation. I often use the experiment with people, what would you think if I told you that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice had met secretly with the Russian ambassador along the lines of undermining the bipartisan policy of the United States and had gotten caught and has plead guilty to a felony offense? Would you consider that to be colluding with the Russians? And of course, they would.09:19But because it’s Mike Flynn and not Susan Rice, they have a hard time seeing that. And that’s just, I think sadly, a function of how much we have now come to occupy these different camps that so color our perception of the same facts.
PB: My observation of the difference between a criminal investigation and prosecution of the type that you and I did in a prior life, versus a congressional investigation which you are doing now and I, in a different prior life, also worked on, there are many differences. One is that in the criminal case in court, there’s a judge and someone decides. And so if you have an argument that you make and you write the brief and the other side writes a brief and then the judge decides, and you may not agree with the judge but there’s sort of finality and there has to be a public acceptance that one side is more correct than the other side. Meanwhile, in your case, with respect to the dueling memos, with respect with the FISA application on Carter Page, the majority puts in a memo which is a style of brief, I guess, for the public to consume, and then you put in one, and everyone can just take the position that they like the one versus the other because there’s no arbiter to decide. Is that frustrating?
AS:10:35That’s exactly right. More than frustrating, it’s deeply concerning because, for one thing, in this particular case, and this is different than the kind of court model you mentioned, we’re violating a compact between the Intelligence Committee and the Intelligence Community. And that is, when these committees were formed, it was essentially agreed that the intelligence agencies would begin sharing their most secret, highly sensitive, classified information with the committee. And the committee would respect that, would protect that, do it’s oversight, yes, and hold the agencies responsible, yes, but not make political use of the intelligence it was getting. That was really broken with the publication of this Nunes memo, when facts were cherry-picked from a FISA application to make the FBI look bad in a very misleading way. And, when this happened, our first reaction when this was taken up in committee was, “Let’s not go down this road. This is a really bad idea and it will mean the intelligence agencies will be loath to share things with us in the future. If you’re concerned with anything that happened in the FISA court, let’s bring the FBI in. First of all, let’s seek access to the underlying FISA applications.” Almost all the committee members had never even read them. So, before we send out a memo characterizing them, let’s read the underlying materials so you can see what I’ve been able to see, because I had read them, that the memo would be very misleading.
PB:12:05I want to ask more questions about the memo but, let’s as a backdrop spend a couple of minutes for the listeners talking about the Intel Committee itself, how it’s different from other committees in the House and the Senate. You mentioned a second ago that there has been a tradition of more bipartisanship historically on the Intel Committees than on other committees. Is that true, and what’s the reason for that?
AS: It is true, and it was one of the things that I really loved about the committee and made more gravitate towards the committee. The subject matter was really not a particularly partisan subject matter. It was overseeing these very mammoth Intelligence Agencies, making sure that they had the resources to do their job and protect the country and make sure they were talking to each other post 9/11 so that we didn’t miss something right before our eyes because we weren’t connecting the dots. And that really didn’t lend itself, happily, to the kind of partisanship that you see in committees that are focused on hot-button issues like abortion or guns or any of the other innumerable issues that really gets people dander up. It was less partisan because our meetings were not conducted in an open session.
PB: Right. Less opportunity to grandstand.
AS:13:23Well, yes. If people grandstand in the Intelligence Committee the reaction would be, “Hey, Joe, what gives? There’s nobody here. It’s just us. There’s nobody watching. What’s the show for?” Yes, there is less grandstanding in our committee hearings. The other thing I’ll say, Preet, that really distinguishes the Intel Committee and makes it a very challenging one is that because so much of our work is done in closed session, because it deal with highly classified information, we don’t have the benefit of outside validators who can step in and help us do our oversights. So, if you’re on the Transportation Committee and the administration comes in and they say that high speed rail is doing great and it’s under budget and things are going swimmingly, there are any number of outside groups that could come in and say, “That’s just not true. There are enormous cost overruns,” or, “These numbers don’t add up.” We don’t get that in the Intel Committee. It’s very rare that we have outside parties who can weigh in and test the arguments that are being made by the agencies. So, it really requires us to know the right questions to ask, to be able to press for answers, to have staff that are really familiar with the ins and outs of the agencies. That makes it among the most challenging oversight jobs to begin with, and that’s obviously something quite wholly separate and apart from the added responsibilities of the Russia investigation.
PB:14:50Let’s talk about your relationship with the chairman, Devin Nunes. How’s that relationship at the moment?
AS: It’s strained, as you can imagine. We had a very positive relationship for years. We’ve served on the committee together. I’ve been on the committee now for around 10 years. He has been on the committee somewhat less but for quite a long time as well.
PB: Were you friends? Were you social friends?
AS: We didn’t necessarily get together outside of work but we would frequently call or text each other. We both found an unusual fact in common, that we were both Oakland Raiders fans and given how very few of those there are, especially in Congress, that was certainly something we would compare how our team was doing from time to time. Devin really isn’t an ideologue in the sense of right, left. Where that changed was I think on March 21st of last year. On March 20th, we had the first open hearing in the Russia investigation when James Comey came to testify. We laid out, among the Democratic members on the committee in that first public hearing, what we knew from public reports, what the allegations were that needed to be investigated, and why we thought that they needed to be thoroughly investigated and this needed to be done in a bipartisan, indeed non-partisan, way. It was at that hearing that Comey dropped the bombshell that, in fact, he and the FBI had been investigating the Trump campaign since July of the election year and it’s association with Russia. That hearing, my Republican colleagues would later tell me they considered a unmitigated disaster.16:34It was the very next day that the chairman went to some undisclosed location, in what’s begin known as the ‘midnight run,’ and obtained information that the following day he would go to the White House and with great fanfare, present saying it was evidence of an unmaking conspiracy in the Obama administration. We would very soon learn thereafter that the information he went to present to the White House, he had actually gotten from the White House.
PB: That’s kind of circular.
AS: It was very circular, but more than that, it really impacted the credibility of the House Intel Investigation. If it’s chairman was somehow in cahoots with the White House. And he was forced to step aside. The problem thereafter was that he never really did step aside. And indeed, months later, when he formally came back to the investigation, he admitted that he had never really recused himself. The memo business, I think, was really a sequel to the ‘midnight run.’ It was something really done, again, in the service of the president, not in the service of the investigation. And when we asked him whether this also had been done in conjunction with the White House, he declined to answer.
PB:17:47Do you think it was? I had Senator Whitehouse on the show a few weeks ago, and it was a principal point of aggravation on his part, the answer to the question of whether or not Nunes and the rest of the staff on the Intel Committee that serve him, I think he used this word, which is a charged term these days, “colluded with the White House putting it together,” even though Devin Nunes has said, technically, that the White House did not have any role in drafting. Do you think they worked together and coordinated the work product that’s the memo?
AS: I don’t know. All I can say is that, after initially refusing to answer the question multiple times, he literally read a one-sentence statement that the White House had not been involved in drafting the memo. It was phrased in such a lawyerly way, the implication was, okay they didn’t write it but they certainly were involved.
PB:18:44What’s so bad about that? So you have Nunes, who’s a Republican and has, you know, a political viewpoint and the White House has a Republican president. What’s wrong with lawyers in the White House, or the president himself, talking with the chair of the Intel Committee about these kinds of issues, and what should be made public?
AS: Well, the problem is that if the White House is trying to push out a storyline that the Russia investigation is just a hoax and a witch-hunt, and the real controversy, the real scandal is the failure to investigate his vanquished rival Hilary Clinton, and he works with the chairman of the committee that’s supposed to be investigating what Russia did in our election, and they worked together to further that narrative, that’s a real problem. The public is never going to have confidence in the investigative result that comes out of that committee if the chairman is essentially working in league with the White House and not doing an objective fact-finding. Whether the White House was involved in drafting the memo or merely concocting the idea or what have you, the far broader problem is that the investigative focus of some of my colleagues including the chairman is really not placed on what Russia did.
PB:20:05I understand the timeline of what you described with respect to Chairman Nunes’ changing last March, but I don’t think I really understand what really happened in his head. Was it the fact that the hearing went so badly for the president, or for him? They hadn’t anticipated the kinds of things that Comey would say? Why was that hearing a trigger for what you seem to be describing as Devin Nunes becoming a little bit more partisan as compared to the past?
AS:20:37My first reaction when I learned that the Republicans felt that that hearing was a disaster, there was nothing disastrous about that hearing for the Republicans on our committee unless you considered that their job was protecting the president, not finding out the truth of what Russia did or what the Trump campaign may have done. It would only be a tragedy if they viewed the president as their client. He’s not their client. The American people are our client, Democrats and Republicans. I think that the close relationship that the chair developed with the president, with the White House, during the campaign and continuing when he played a role in the transition team, was something he didn’t want to lose. It was difficult to navigate being a surrogate and a friend of the White House with running an objective investigation, and one had to give way. And unfortunately for the committee and for the country, what gave way was the need to run an objective investigation.21:40Now, we have soldiered along anyway and the reins were turned over in substantial part to Mike Conaway of Texas and he and I have worked together very well on a bipartisan basis that’s not been without its difficulties because, still, the critical decisions are being made by the chairman. But at least the day-to-day running of things has, I think, immeasurably improved when Mike took over the leadership on the GOP side. And we have been able to do some good and important investigative work and make a lot of progress.
PB:22:16Can we clear up the issue relating to the recusal? Why was it, as an official matter, that at one point Devin Nunes stepped away and then what was the process by which he came back? That’s confusing for a lot of people. I think people don’t understand that at all.
AS:22:32He stepped away after the ‘midnight run,’ when it was revealed that he’d gotten these materials actually from the White House. But the reason that he gave for stepping aside or recusing himself was that an ethics complaint had been filed against him, not on the basis of the ‘midnight run,’ but on the basis of disclosing classified information. Now that ethics charge was later dropped by the committee or the committee decided not to pursue it, and the chairman said, “Okay, I’m no longer stepping aside or recusing myself.” But the problem really hadn’t been the ethics complaint. The problem had been his working in the service of the White House. And so, that problem never went away. And even during that period of time when he had said he was stepping aside, even then, he continued to make key decisions. The committee rules give the chairman the authority to issue subpoenas. And during the period in which he was supposed to be recused, we asked that we go to the other mechanism in the committee rule that allowed the committee to vote on the approval of subpoenas, or that Mike Conaway be designated as the person to take over that responsibility. The chairman wouldn’t allow that. He continued to insist on having that important responsibility.
PB: Why is it not a blatant ethical violation to remain in control of various things including subpoena process during the time, which you have said publicly, because of another ethics complaint, that you’d stepped aside?
AS:24:06Well, at the end of the day, because I don’t think that’s a matter for an ethics committee to decide, that kind of issue is the issue for the speaker to decide. What kind of an investigation does he want the Intelligence Committee to conduct? How serious does he want it to be? And there have been a number of entreaties to the speaker over the last year, but they have essentially fallen on deaf ears. This is the investigation the speaker wants done in the manner he wants it done. That is to say, not very seriously and with a different objective than the American people have. And that is one that’s not really focused on Russian intervention in our democracy or what we need to do to protect ourselves in the midterms or thereafter or what the Trump campaign may have done in conjunction with the Russians, but rather how can we seek to embarrass the Obama administration. Preet, you and I saw as prosecutors the old offense tactic of, when the evidence starts to look increasingly incriminating of the defendant, put the government on trial. And much of what we have seen from the ‘midnight run,’ to the memos to countless other attacks now on the State Department, is an effort to put the government on trial. Don’t look at what the Russians did, let’s put the government on trial.
PB:25:23Something that happened with respect to the debate over the FISA application in connection with Carter Page and the memos that we’ve been talking about, what do you say to the people who claim that the FISA court was in some way misled by the Department of Justice?
AS:25:37Well, they weren’t misled. The FISA court was made aware of a long history involving Carter Page and reasons why the FBI was concerned that Carter Page might be acting as the agent of a foreign power, as the agent of Russia. They laid out some of the history involving Carter Page. They also included information that had been obtained from Christopher Steele, and they caveated it by saying that he was hired by a person who was hired by a law firm and this was likely done as opposition research. Now, they did what they’re supposed to do, and this is ironic that the Republicans take issue with it, they masked the names of the individuals involved. So Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump appear as candidate one and candidate two, and the law firm isn’t mentioned by its named, its mentioned as a law firm. This is what they’re supposed to do in FISA applications when they’re talking about US persons and US entities who are not themselves the subject of the investigation, to protect the privacy of people.
PB:26:41But, can the following two things both be true. One, that they did what they were supposed to do and they didn’t unmask by name Hilary Clinton and her campaign. And on the other hand, the other argument that I’ve also heard is, they didn’t have to identify them by name because reasonable smart people like FISA court judges who live in the world would have understood that the likely parties who had an interest in this derogatory information about the Trump campaign was going to be the Clinton campaign? How do you square those two things?
AS:27:10I think that’s very true, and of course we’re talking about October of the election year. There were no longer these 16 opponents of Donald Trump that had been there in the primary. There wasn’t much mystery about who would be interested in undermining Donald Trump’s campaign. One other important fact, though, is what’s relevant to the FISA court judge is the credibility of the source of the information and the bias that the source may have. Which means, what’s most important is for the court to know, what did Christopher Steele know about who was paying him, not what others may know. Because if Christopher Steele is unaware of who’s paying for it, then it’s not going to have the same influence, necessarily, over the veracity of the information he’s providing. Christopher Steele, we know from the now public testimony of Glenn Simpson, wasn’t told who the client was. So the court was given more information, frankly, about the likely client than Christopher Steele was, although Christopher Steele may have had the same suspicions about who was ultimately the client here. But the long and the short of it is, the FISA court was given the kind of information it should have been given, the FBI was acting appropriately, and what you and I can appreciate but others may be less aware of is, compared to most sources in, whether it’s a search warrant application or a wiretap application or a FISA court application, relying on a proven and trusted former member of British intelligence is not a strange thing to do. Often, the sources are informants who have long criminal records or have plead guilty to various perjurious conduct or have a financial motivation or any kinds of other elicit history. Having a trusted former intelligence officer is a pretty high standard, as sources go.
PB:29:08Any chance that the McCabe testimony can become public?
AS: I would hope that at some point, and it may have to wait until the conclusion of the investigation, that we’ll publish all of the transcripts of the witnesses so the public can see the actual testimony and facts themselves. This will be all the more important if we’re unable to reach a unified conclusion. One of the things that I said at that March hearing last year was that the real service, if we were able to perform it, would be to present a united conclusion to the country so that they wouldn’t have to choose between a Democratic version of events and a Republican one. It gets back to the point you were making earlier about the two memos and how in court you have a judge who, ultimately, rules. Here there won’t be a judge to ultimately rule. I said in March that I thought that the best service would be if we could present a single report and not force the country to choose, that I didn’t know whether we’d be able to get there or not, and of course, a lot of things have made that far more difficult now.30:10If we can’t get there, then the next best thing is to present all the facts to the American people and let them draw their own conclusions from having the full benefit of the information. One other point I want to make on this, Preet, is we know a certain amount about what the Russians did and what the Trump campaign did, the Senate Intelligence Committee Assembly, and Bob Mueller knows a different set of information. I would hope at the end of Mueller’s investigation, that the Congress will have the benefit of his work, so that the report that we make publicly will be the most inclusive. Because I am concerned that Mueller may not be able to speak outside of the four corners of an indictment. And there may be very important evidence that he uncovers that may not reach the level of proof beyond reasonable doubt, but may nevertheless be clear and convincing on issues like collusion or obstruction of justice, that both the Congress and the public should be aware of.
PB:31:10I was at an event with a number of members of Congress not too long ago, and one member asked me the question, with respect to the Russia investigation both what Mueller is doing and what Congress is doing, and asked the question, “How does this end?” And, the way I answered the question was saying, I don’t know because a lot of it depends on what members of Congress do assuming Bob Mueller issues some report that gets forwarded to the House, what kind of oversight role Congress sees for itself, and whether they do, like you have suggested would be good, issue something that is bipartisan and unified. So let me ask you the question, how does this end?
AS:31:52Well, Preet, I remember listening to your presentation. I was struck by something you said because I had reached very much the same conclusion although from a slightly different point of view. And that is, is there any chance that Bob Mueller would indict the President of the United States? And I think you came to the conclusion that that was unlikely because it would really divide the country, be very controversial. There’s a split among scholars about whether that’s even possible. And to have such a controversial and divided result would probably not be something that Bob Mueller would gravitate to. I think that there’s not constitutional prohibition on indicting even a sitting president, but for very similar, prudential reasons, Bob Mueller would be unlikely to do it, even if he found sufficient evidence.
PB: I think that’s true. I think that’s very unlikely, right?
AS:32:41I don’t think he would want to delegate the responsibility for determining the fate of the Republic to twelve laid jurors somewhere. So even while I don’t think there’s a constitutional prohibition on it, I think should he reach that point, he would be far more likely to refer the matter to Congress for consideration of impeachment if the facts warranted it. I don’t, obviously, know whether Bob Mueller finds that he has the evidence to support that kind of referral or recommendation. If he did, there’s a real political standard, and the political standard in a GOP Congress is whether Republican members can go back to Republican districts and make the case that the president’s conduct was so incompatible with the office that they voted to remove him and it wasn’t simply about nullifying an election that those other people didn’t like. If those GOP members can’t make that argument, there is no impeachment regardless of how high the crime or how serious the misdemeanor. And that political bar is very high.
PB: You’re not in favor of impeachment just yet?
AS:33:46I’m not in favor of talking about impeachment at this point while the investigation is still very much ongoing. If it ultimately is the case that the evidence rises to that level, to the level of putting the country through what would be an incredibly wrenching experience, it ought to be something we embrace reluctantly and not be seen as rushing ahead with. For one thing, if the evidence does warrant it down the road, perception that, “Well, this is what Democrats wanted from the very beginning,” only makes that case more difficult. I don’t think it wise to really be talking about or pushing impeachment while the investigation is still ongoing.
PB:34:30Do you think that repeated lies to the public, not to investigators but to the public, by a sitting president is a basis for impeachment? Because I believe Ken Starr seems to be of that view.
AS:34:42I think that would be really stretching what the founders had in mind with the impeachment clause, that a president who told repeated falsehoods to the American people committed a high crime or a misdemeanor. Now, it’s true that what the founders meant by misdemeanors is something different than what we consider them today, we would look at a misdemeanor as something less serious than a high crime. But I think what they had in mind was serious malfeasance in office, whether it was criminal or not, and you could say that serial lying to the people fits in that category.
PB:35:20Do you think that your fellow Democrats talk too much about Russia and the investigation? Obviously, it is occupying a lot of your time. You’re the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee; I’m a podcaster who has some experience on some of these things. So it doesn’t seem that crazy for someone like you or in a different context someone like me to be talking about these issues a lot. But as a matter of bread and butter politics, should your colleagues stick to other issues?
AS:35:49First of all, I always try to emphasize, not just with my colleagues but more generally with the public, that when we talk about Russia we need to view the whole issue in it’s far broader context. And that is, this wasn’t just about helping Donald Trump or hurting Hilary Clinton. What the Russians really were after is undermining our very democracy and not just our democracy, but they’ve been doing this around the world, attacking the very idea of liberal democracy. I also share with my colleagues, I talk about Russia because it’s central to my committee responsibilities and I think what’s going on around the world is really serious and needs confronting, but you shouldn’t be talking about Russia. You should be talking about the economy. You should be talking about what you’re going to do to improve people’s lives. We’ll have a good midterm no matter what we do, but we need a great midterm, the kind of midterm that takes back the Congress to put a real constraint on this administration. And what that’s going to require is giving people a positive and compelling reason to turn out and vote for Democrats, and not just a reason to vote against the other side.37:04I think the three things, frankly, that Democrats should be campaigning on right now are the economy, and the fact that we’re going through some serious structural changes in the economy, that automation is going to aggravate a lot of the trends that we’ve seen over the last 10 or 20 years. If we don’t face it, then come up with good solutions. And I think we ought to be campaigning on support for family, which means being able to send your kids to school and not have them chased down the hall [by] someone with an assault weapon, and it means allowing parents to get adequate healthcare for themselves and their kids, and making sure that kids aren’t deported to other countries they’ve never lived [in]. And finally, I think we should be campaigning on a return to decency.
PB: Jeff Flake, who’s been on the show, who’s a proponent of decency and normalcy, apparently has no shot at retaining his seat.
AS:37:58Well, I want to say something about Jeff Flake, who I have great admiration for. He and I came to Congress together. People denigrate Jeff Flake because they say, “Well, you know, he’s not running for reelection and he was going to lose anyway.” Jeff Flake is a good enough politician and a smart enough guy that if all he cared about was being reelected, he would have been easily on the path to reelection. And the reason that he isn’t and wasn’t is that during the campaign, when he could see as we all could that Donald Trump was unfit for this office, he said so. And later in the campaign when it became clear, nonetheless, that he was going to be the GOP nominee, and so many other Republicans fell in line, he refused to fall in line. Had he only cared about getting reelected, he would’ve fallen in line like everybody else in his party in Congress and he would’ve been coasting to reelection. But there was something more important to him and I think that was looking his kids in the eye. And he will leave the Senate, I think, with great pride in his service. I think many others will leave the Congress with shame about what they did and more importantly what they didn’t do when our institutions were at such grave risk.
PB:39:10Yeah, I agree with you. I heard a lot of people say after he was on the show when you otherwise see him speak, that talk is cheap, he still votes overwhelmingly in the way that you would expect a Trump supporter to vote. But to my mind, I think echoing what you’re saying, is any voice, Republican or Democrat and particularly Republican, because it goes against self-interest often, who joins the chorus of people saying decency is important and institutions are important, should be welcomed by the other side.
AS:39:39I think that’s exactly right, Preet. One of the real disappointments of the last year for me has not been what kind of president Donald Trump turned out to be, I think that was sadly too predictable, but rather how few would be willing to stand up to him, how quickly he’d be able to remake the party in his deeply flawed image, and how seldom my colleagues would be willing to confront him. That has been a terrible realization. Our democracy turns out to be far more fragile than we might have imagined and far more dependent on the good will of the people and the conviction of the people who are serving at any given time. Maybe that should have been self evident, but it’s becoming all too apparent right now. I cherish, frankly, the voices like Jeff Flake’s. Yes, he’s very conservative and we vote completely differently on most issues but he has a strength of character about him and an integrity about him that you don’t see displayed by many in the GOP and Congress right now. And I admire that.
PB:40:50Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
AS: Thank you. It’s been great to join you. I’m a big fan.