WASHINGTON — No one understands the political perils of impeaching a president quite like Rep. Adam Schiff.
In 2000, he won a House seat centered in the north Los Angeles suburbs of Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena by defeating Republican incumbent James Rogan, a colorful and camera-loving former prosecutor who had become nationally prominent as a House manager of President Bill Clinton's impeachment.
While Schiff concentrated on district-specific issues, Rogan's high profile in going after Clinton made it easier to portray him as neglectful of his constituents' priorities, and it turned the contest into such a touchstone that donors from across the country poured record sums into the candidates' coffers. As a result, Schiff was able to subtly take advantage of voters' distaste for the Clinton impeachment without the risk inherent in making it the focus of his campaign.
"Rogan never really was able to escape any of that," said Bill Carrick, a consultant who was tapped by national Democrats to guide soft-money spending in western states that year. "He was sort of trapped in that impeachment thing. And Adam ran a good campaign."
Nearly two decades later, it is Schiff, now the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who is a central player in the impeachment inquiry — and the target of a ceaseless stream of invective from President Donald Trump that includes both schoolyard nicknames and outlandish allegations that the congressman is guilty of treason.
The Clinton-era lessons of overreach and political backlash — not just in his district but across the country — informed Schiff's reluctance to move forward with a formal impeachment inquiry. That was until the revelation last month that Trump had asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
But Schiff's go-slow approach to the Trump impeachment earlier this year reflects a native caution — also evident in his decision to forgo a long-contemplated 2016 Senate run — that reassures Democrats they have found a steady hand even as Republicans are demonizing him for the process he's run and the allegations he's made against the president.
"I watched what the impeachment was doing to the country and felt very strongly that...it was a terrible abuse of that power," Schiff said in an interview with NBC News on Sunday, speaking of the Republican-led House's votes against Clinton in 1998. “The circumstances today are quite radically different. The president's actions today threaten our national security and betray his oath of office."
Schiff's style — so measured in tone that his partisan edges can be missed as easily as his dry humor — provides the kind of contrast fellow Democrats hope make the 59-year-old father of two as tough a match for Trump as he was for Rogan.
"He's a methodical, boring guy, but that's what you need," said one House colleague who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a candid assessment of Schiff without fear of harming their relationship.
Since Democrats took control of the House in January, Schiff, a former assistant U.S. attorney, has reflected the approach of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow California Democrat who raised money for his first campaign, installed him as chairman of the Intelligence Committee — a panel on which she once sat as the top Democrat — and shifted the lead on impeachment from Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., to Schiff as soon as the Ukraine scandal hit.
Before Ukraine, Schiff, who led the successful removal of a federal judge through the impeachment process about a decade ago, admonished fellow Democrats and the party's activist base that it would be a mistake to hit the gas on impeachment without evidence that would persuade most of the public that removal was merited — again, a lesson from the Clinton experience.
"I was reluctant to go down the road of impeachment prior to these new allegations coming to the surface not just because the Republicans were likely to vote in lockstep with the president," he said. "I wanted to make sure if we went down this road we would at least be able to show the American people why it was warranted."
Schiff, like Pelosi, is careful to frame the question in terms of the institutional and constitutional implications. "The impeachment inquiry is not only necessary but vital," he said.
Schiff added that Trump's decision to ask Ukraine's president to investigate a political opponent, and to do so right after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified to Congress about his Russia probe, "says to me that this president feels that he is above the law and there is no accountability, and that is a very dangerous position for the country to be in."
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the Intelligence Committee, praised Schiff for keeping a focus on Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. And, he said, Schiff has "been purposeful in the way he leads" on the impeachment inquiry, "seeing the bigger picture" and ignoring the vagaries of "day-to-day breaking news drama" that can distract from it.
"He will be regarded as a generational leader when our national security and nothing less than the republic was on the line," Swalwell told NBC news.
The other side of the equation is that if a House impeachment is viewed by the public as baseless and partisan, it could cost House Democrats the majority they won in the 2018 midterm elections. With public polls showing a majority of Americans now in favor of the inquiry and an increasing share of them supportive of removing Trump from office, the calculus of which party benefits is shifting.
On a personal level, leading the charge against Trump could be the key to the job many Democrats think Schiff wants next: a Senate seat. It's hard for a House member in California to raise enough money or get the kind of name-recognition necessary to run successfully statewide — the state has 53 congressional districts — but his role in impeachment has given Schiff a platform that is unavailable to most of his colleagues.
"Schiff has become part celebrity and part political powerhouse — holding the keys to unlock the vindication box that Democrats and everyday Americans have been salivating for," said Dave Jacobson, a Democratic strategist in Southern California. "Given that California is a bastion of deep-blue progressivism, there is only an upside to this impeachment effort for Schiff."
Schiff passed on the 2016 Senate race, when Kamala Harris won the seat left open by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, and the other seat is held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who won re-election in 2018. If Harris doesn't win the presidency, the next chance for Schiff to run for the Senate might not arise until 2024.
The perception of Schiff that emerged in interviews with Democratic lawmakers, House and Senate aides, and strategists — sharp-minded, steady-handed and calm under pressure — couldn't be more at odds with the assessment of Schiff by Trump, his allies in the conservative media and the Republicans who match up against Schiff in the House on a regular basis.
The nine-member GOP contingent on the House Intelligence Committee demanded that Schiff resign his post in March after Mueller's report concluded there was not sufficient evidence to charge the president or anyone in his orbit for conspiring with Russia to interfere in the election.
In 2017, Schiff said on MSNBC's "Meet the Press Daily" that there would be "more than circumstantial evidence" showing collusion between Trump's camp and Moscow, and he had repeatedly suggested that he was aware of nonpublic information detrimental to the president's defense.
Since taking the reins of the impeachment investigation, Schiff has moved most of the proceedings behind closed doors — to the relief of many Democrats and the great consternation of Republican colleagues and the White House. Last week, White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote a scathing letter to House leaders in which he said the administration would not participate in the impeachment inquiry if Pelosi and the chairmen of House committees did not alter their process.
After Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, defied the White House's decree and testified Friday in a secure room in the Capitol, GOP lawmakers criticized Schiff for not letting them ask questions in public.
"Not one single thing said in there was classified, not one single thing said in either their transcribed interview last week or the deposition this week is something that the American people should not be able to see and hear," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. "And the real question is, why the secrecy? Why is Adam Schiff — why is Adam Schiff — we're talking about the impeachment of the president of the United States, why the secrecy?"
Schiff said he is most concerned with conducting the inquiry in a way that doesn't allow the president or witnesses to alter their stories to fit the facts.
"I have no doubt that the president and those around him would like to be able to tailor their stories to the witness testimony," he said.
Some Democrats privately acknowledge that he had gone too far in the past in pointing to evidence of collusion between Trump's team and Russia, and Schiff provided new fodder for his adversaries at the outset of the Ukraine scandal when he read at an Intelligence Committee hearing a mock summary of the White House's partial transcript of the president's July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“I hear what you want. I have a favor I want from you, though, and I'm gonna say this only seven times, so you better listen good," Schiff said, attempting to deliver a caricature of the conversation. “I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent, understand? Lots of it.”
A furious Trump claimed Schiff was trying to pass that off as the real phone call, demanded that he resign and suggested that the lawmaker might be detained on charges of treason — a crime that involves waging war against the United States or abetting its enemies, and which is punishable by death.
The other issue Trump and his allies have repeatedly raised — and one that goes to Schiff's credibility with the broader public — is his insistence that he did not have contact with the whistleblower before the person filed a complaint that brought the Ukraine affair to light.
In a Sept. 17 interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Schiff said, "We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower."
His staff later acknowledged that the whistleblower, who remains anonymous, had contacted an Intelligence Committee aide before filing the complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, a revelation that led the Washington Post's fact-checker to give Schiff a full "four Pinocchios" for his original statement.
On CBS’s "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Schiff said that he should have been "much more clear" about contact with the whistleblower. What he meant to indicate, he said, was that the committee had not had a chance to discuss the complaint with the whistleblower once it was filed.
Fox News' Sean Hannity called Schiff "a proven liar" after that, demanded that he resign and said there should be an investigation into his contact with the whistleblower.
Trump responded by accusing both Schiff and Pelosi of committing "high crimes and misdemeanors, and even treason" — two of the offenses for which administration officials may be impeached and removed from office under the Constitution. Members of the House are not subject to impeachment.
Be that as it may, impeaching Schiff's character — and trying to goad him by using his last name in place of an expletive for excrement and giving him nicknames like "shifty Schiff" and "Liddle Adam Schiff" — is a top priority for Trump and his loyalists on Capitol Hill.
Carrick said Schiff is demonstrating now, as he did in 2000, that it's hard to get under his skin or distract him from the job in front of him.
"His demeanor is definitely a strong advantage," Carrick said. "We see how frustrating he is to the Republicans."
For his part, Schiff said being demonized comes with the territory — and he characterized it as evidence that the facts are on his side.
"I do my very best to tune out all the noise, and a lot of the noise obviously comes from the president," he said, adding of his Republican colleagues, "They will attack anyone because they can't defend the president's conduct."