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Politics As Pelosi takes on Trump, longtime ally Adam Schiff leads the way

15:33  10 october  2019
15:33  10 october  2019 Source:   sfchronicle.com

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WASHINGTON — With an impeachment inquiry under way, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is fond of quoting Revolution-era writer Thomas Paine as saying, “The times have found us.” They’ve also found one of her most trusted allies in charge.

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff is leading the investigation into President Trump’s phone-call request that Ukraine’s president dig up damaging information on potential 2020 rival Joe Biden. He got the job because a whistle-blower complaint about the call came from the intelligence community — a fortuitous coincidence for Pelosi, who played an instrumental role in putting Schiff in the job where he might now help determine her legacy.

“Speaker Pelosi has tremendous respect for him and trust in him,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, another California Democrat whose career Pelosi has nurtured. “She respects his intellect, she respects how he presents himself on television, she respects his judgment. ... They have a very close bond.”

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The prominent role also makes Schiff a target for President Trump and congressional Republicans, who are seeking any openings to discredit the Democrats’ impeachment efforts. They seized on revelations that Schiff’s office provided guidance to the whistle-blower before the complaint was filed, which earned Schiff a reprimand from fact-checkers because he’d denied communicating with the source. They also went after Schiff for paraphrasing Trump’s phone call in a congressional hearing rather than reading a White House rough transcript of it verbatim, although Schiff made it clear at the time what he was doing.

How the Burbank Democrat handles the impeachment inquiry — and whether he’s able to avoid more consequential missteps — could affect not only Pelosi’s place in history but his own political future.

Schiff told The Chronicle that Pelosi positioned him to “make a difference at a time when I think our democratic institutions are really under assault.” He also said Pelosi’s “times have found us” quote has stuck with him, as has her advice that every member should know how to use the power they hold.

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“We do seem to be at such a pivotal intersection where the country can head in one of two directions,” Schiff said. “It can continue down the dark path that the president has put us in, or it can change ... and once again uplift the values that we have traditionally associated with this country as a beacon of democracy and human rights.”

Schiff, 59, was named the top Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee in 2015 after eight years on the panel. He owes that to Pelosi: Seats and leadership on the committee are distributed at the prerogative of the party’s leader in the House, which Pelosi has been since 2003.

Pelosi and Schiff have been close since his first election to Congress in 2000. A former Democratic Party committeewoman and top fundraiser, Pelosi saw an opportunity to flip seats in California that year and raised cash for Schiff’s campaign. At the time, it was the most expensive House race ever.

Schiff grabbed the seat from Republican Rep. James Rogan. In a historical echo of this moment, Rogan’s position as a manager in the House’s 1998 impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton contributed to his loss. The district had been trending away from Republicans, and Rogan’s prominent role in the process made him a top national target for Democrats.

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“I think that’s part of the reason that both Speaker Pelosi and Adam Schiff were not running around with their hair on fire screaming for impeachment the day after the election,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime California political consultant. “They look at the process through actual experience with one of the people who made a travesty of it.”

Schiff, an ex-federal prosecutor and former state senator, developed a reputation as thoughtful and measured. Pelosi put him on a panel she holds in high regard — she served on it before becoming speaker and was the top Democrat on it for two years. When Trump’s Ukraine phone call became an Intelligence Committee issue last month, Pelosi told the president, “You have come into my wheelhouse.”

Schiff said Pelosi approached him about serving on the panel in 2007 as the committee was opening an investigation into the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes of terrorism suspects. She wanted someone with investigative experience — something he says he relies on to this day.

Schiff said Pelosi still has an “intimate role” in the committee’s work as the House leader, a position in which she has access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets.

The two have also been closely aligned on politics. Schiff has proven to be a powerhouse fundraiser despite not having competitive races — in the 2018 election cycle, when he had no serious opposition, he raised more than $6 million. From his campaign fund, he cut checks to dozens of Democratic candidates for Congress and party entities, doling out more than $650,000.

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He also has a reputation as a likable colleague with a strong work ethic. Former California schools chief Jack O’Connell, who roomed with Schiff when they were both state senators in the 1990s, described him fondly as “a workaholic.”

During his first congressional race, Schiff “would get up before 5 in the morning at our house and he’d be on the phone calling back to the East Coast,” O’Connell said. “He would get on a plane and fly all night to have a fundraising breakfast there, and be back in Sacramento by the afternoon for his committee assignments.”

Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman called Schiff “the adult in the room, at all times,” and said he has the respect of the whole Democratic caucus.

Slideshow by photo services

When Pelosi was trying to hold back Democrats who wanted to impeach Trump as early as last year, saying it was premature and divisive, Schiff was aligned with her. As recently as July, he said he would be “delighted if we had a prospect of removing (Trump) through impeachment, but we don’t.”

Then came Ukraine. The whistle-blower’s complaint led to the release of the White House rough transcript of a phone call in which Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to reopen a dormant investigation into a gas company on which Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was a member of the board of directors.

The episode changed Pelosi’s mind on impeachment, and Schiff’s. The fact that the complaint came from the intelligence community meant the inquiry went to Schiff’s panel and not to the Judiciary Committee headed by New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, who was pushing for impeachment before Pelosi was ready to go there.

Schiff said he sees his role through the lens of his experience as a prosecutor, and aims to be “methodical” in identifying targets of the investigation, getting the facts and then presenting the case to the “jury” of the Senate and American people.

The prominence of the impeachment inquiry has brought an outsized glare from Republicans. Trump has attacked Schiff with disparaging nicknames and pointed to the Washington Post’s “four Pinocchio” rating for the congressman’s claim that his committee had no contact with the whistle-blower before the complaint was filed.

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of California accused Schiff of “lying to the American people.” Republicans are planning to force a vote on a censure resolution against Schiff when lawmakers return from a recess next week, though Democrats have the votes to defeat it.

Schiff brushes off the attacks, saying McCarthy has “no independent judgment” outside of the president and that Trump is simply goading him out of desperation.

“I do my best to tune them out,” Schiff said. “The president needs an adversary, and he would like nothing better than for me to engage him.”

Fellow Intelligence Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, said Schiff “doesn’t waste time on day-to-day breaking news drama.” When committee Republicans challenge Schiff behind closed doors, Swalwell said, “he doesn’t flinch.”

How Schiff handles the spotlight could affect his future trajectory. His political skill, campaign bankroll and allies in high places have led to speculation that he could one day run for U.S. Senate from California or try to move into the House’s leadership when the 79-year-old Pelosi retires.

Schiff acknowledged he considered running for Senate when former Sen. Barbara Boxer retired in 2016 — Kamala Harris eventually won the seat — but said that right now, he “cannot think beyond next week.”

Carrick, the political consultant, noted that few California members of Congress advance to statewide office, in part because it’s hard for them to get noticed outside their districts. But Schiff “doesn’t have any problem with it being hard to get well-known,” Carrick said. “He is somebody that’s going to be very, very well-known.”

Mark Kadesh, a former chief of staff and campaign manager for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, recalls telling his wife upon first meeting Schiff that he was “incredibly smart” but “so moderate” in temperament that he might have trouble attracting enough attention to move up. While Kadesh no longer has those doubts, he says, he also doesn’t believe Schiff is looking too far ahead.

“My guess is he’ll have lots of options going forward, but I think what’s on his mind right now is doing the job,” Kadesh said. “And frankly, this is the stuff that makes it in your obituary, what he’s doing here. ... He’s doing the right thing by focusing on what’s in front of him.”

Tal Kopan is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: tal.kopan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @talkopan

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