Nicholas Kristof: Adam Schiff is the congressman Trump wants you to hate

(Susan Walsh | AP) House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep Adam Schiff, D-Calif., arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019.

The paradox of Adam Schiff is this: He is depicted by some Republicans as a fanatical partisan, with President Donald Trump suggesting that he is a “radical left” “lowlife” who should be arrested for treason, yet in real life Schiff is a cerebral and mild-mannered moderate.

But perhaps there’s a logic to Trump’s venom: Schiff’s mild persona conceals a relentless determination. That’s why he’s a marathoner and a triathlon athlete. It’s also how he first received attention, as a dogged young federal prosecutor in Los Angeles who won a conviction — after two failed trials led by other prosecutors — against an FBI agent accused of spying for Russia for sex and money.

Now he’s again investigating alleged Russia-related wrongdoing by a federal employee, only this time the employee is the president.

Trump and his supporters are trying to “Pelosify” Schiff. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., is calling for a censure of Schiff for pursuing “a witch hunt in a fantasy land.”

All this is bizarre. Schiff has not even come out for impeachment, saying that such decisions should await the investigation, although he is blunt about describing Trump as a danger to the country. Schiff was chosen to lead the impeachment inquiry precisely because of his reputation not as a bomb-thrower but as a reasonable lawyer who will oversee a meticulous inquiry.

“If that makes me appear as a partisan, I’m willing to accept that,” Schiff told me in a long conversation before an audience at the 92nd Street Y in New York. “The way I view it, my role is to defend our democracy at a time when it is deeply at risk.”

Schiff grew up in Massachusetts, Arizona and California. His father was a garment salesman who later owned and operated a lumber yard, and his mother was a real estate agent. At Stanford, Schiff was both pre-med and pre-law but finally decided that law school would be more useful for a political career. His parents, hoping for a doctor, were aghast.

After Harvard Law School, Schiff worked as a prosecutor, dabbled in politics and began writing screenplays — he’s still writing them. In 2000, he defeated Rep. James Rogan, a Republican in Los Angeles County who had been deeply involved in the impeachment of Bill Clinton two years earlier. If anybody understands that impeachment can create political vulnerabilities, it’s Schiff.

In Congress, Schiff gravitated toward national security issues. He was active in trying to address the genocide in Darfur, identified with the Blue Dog group of moderate Democrats and joined the House Intelligence Committee — one of those nonglamorous places where hearings are often closed and there are few chances for grandstanding.

On Capitol Hill, Schiff is known as a slightly goofy nerd who recites endless lines from the movie “The Big Lebowski” and gamely tries his hand once a year at stand-up comedy. He’s also renowned for his wife’s name, Eve; Adam and Eve are teased for their failure to name their kids Cain and Abel.

Charles Glovsky, Schiff’s cousin, told me that friends are always advising Schiff to buy nicer suits or less decrepit shoes, but that he isn’t interested. “Not motivated by money at all,” Glovsky said.

These days, Schiff said, he’s trying to proceed as fast as possible with the impeachment investigation, but he resisted my attempts to pin him to a timeline. “When you consider how much we have learned in the last three weeks, it’s breathtaking,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

He said that his committee is investigating whether there is a recording of the call between Trump and Ukraine’s president, either in the U.S. or in Ukraine. “We are determined to find out,” he said.

Schiff was particularly scathing about Attorney General William Barr. “He’s the second-most dangerous person in the country,” Schiff said. “In his own way, he’s as much of a threat to the rule of law as the president.”

I asked if the House might, in a bid to compel testimony, exercise its “inherent contempt” authority and send the sergeant-at-arms out to arrest people and lock them up in the Capitol. Schiff said he had ruled this out but was considering fining those who refuse to cooperate.

He acknowledged some missteps, including misleading comments about his committee’s contact with the whistleblower. I argued that we might be better off if hearings were public; he responded that initial hearings need to be closed to keep witnesses from knowing what others have said, but he added that “all these transcripts are going to be made public.”

“There are still people with an open mind,” he said. “And those are the ones I’m trying to speak to.”

The larger issue, he said, is that democracy throughout the world is under threat. “This is bigger than Trump: It started before Trump; it won’t end with Trump,” he said. “The bigger picture is democracy is hanging in the balance, and we remain its best hope.”

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.