Rep. Schiff warns a failed impeachment fight could set wrong precedent

The House Intelligence chairman said the most important question for Democrats is, "can we make the case to the American people?"

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By Ben Kamisar

WASHINGTON — House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., defended the House Democratic leadership's cautious approach toward launching impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, saying that charges destined to be nullified by the GOP-controlled Senate could set an unwelcome precedent.

In an exclusive interview with "Meet the Press," Schiff said “there is great weight” to the argument that impeaching Trump is an imperative in order to take a stand that the allegations he’s accused of — mainly, obstruction of justice — cannot be tolerated by Congress. But he said a failed impeachment fight could end up sending the wrong message.

“I worry equally about the message of taking an impeachment case to trial, losing that case, having the president acquitted, and then having an adjudication that this conduct is not impeachable,” he said.

"The jury I'm most worried about, not the Senate because I think that's a preordained conclusion, is the American people. Can we make the case to the American people? I want to make sure that's true before we go down that path because it's going to occupy a year of the nation's time."

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The debate is dividing Democrats on Capitol Hill right now, with nearly 100 House Democrats supporting impeachment.

Many Democrats had hoped that former special counsel Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony last week would jump-start the debate by convincing more Americans and Democratic lawmakers that impeachment was necessary.

But while Mueller did amplify some key assertions of his report — Schiff described Mueller’s testimony as “chilling” and said he highlighted a “campaign and presidential candidate characterized by disloyalty to country, by greed and by lies” — the hearings have not prompted any tectonic shifts among Democrats or Republicans on Capitol Hill.

On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she’s not trying to “run out the clock” on impeachment and that a “decision will be made in a timely fashion.” But that same day, a top lieutenant, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said his committee has been conducting an impeachment inquiry “in effect.”

When asked how he would characterize where the House is in the process, Schiff replied it would be “most accurately described as preliminary to a judicial proceeding, that proceeding being a potential impeachment.”

“The most important thing is to obtain the grand jury material, to see the evidence,” Schiff said, referring to the underlying evidence on which the Mueller report rests.

“There's no making the case to the cult of the president's personality that is the Senate GOP, but we should at least be able to make the case to the American people. And I'd like to see the evidence so I'm confident that we can do that before we say we're ready to charge the president of the United States.

In response to Schiff, Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, who has spent millions supporting a push to impeach Trump, argued that impeachment will help Democrats reach out to those who don't vote because they've lost faith in their government.

"This system can work again, and the only way to do that in my opinion is to tell the hard truths, is to be straight forward, and not to be so calculating and careful and tactical, but rather to be trustworthy," he said in an exclusive interview on "Meet the Press" Sunday.