Adam Schiff Weighs In on What Trump May Do Next

Adam Schiff Weighs In on What Trump May Do Next

Adam Schiff Weighs In on What Trump May Do Next

Republicans are flailing since the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, but the California congressman believes cooler heads can prevail.


Sitting in his Mar-a-Lago redoubt, Trump has, these past 19 months, continued to inject toxins into America’s already ailing political system. Like an out-of-control ogre in a bad fairy tale, he bestrides the political process, bending an ever-more-pliant GOP to his antidemocratic political will.

Over the past couple months, however, the narrative has started to spin out of his control. The FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago, combined with the publication of the warrant that led to the search, the devastating January 6 hearings, the ongoing criminal case being built against the Trump organization, the court decision that his tax filings can’t be shielded from House investigators, his use of the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating himself in the New York investigation into his business practices, the tightening legal net against Giuliani and his allies in Georgia, all point to a gathering storm against Trump.

Last Saturday, I spoke to Representative Adam Schiff, before a talk he gave at a book festival at the University of San Diego about his Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could (Random House). Schiff was scathing about Trump’s decision to hold on to state secrets and his behavior since that decision came to light. “He feels he’s going down, and he’s prepared to pull the whole house down around him. He doesn’t care about the democracy, about people going to the FBI offices with assault weapons and shooting at people.”

Trump is aided in his tantrum by enablers in high places. Florida Senator Rick Scott compared the raid to an action by the Gestapo, calling it an “escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the regime’s political opponents.” It’s another example of the GOP making special exceptions for the former president.

“Anyone else who had boxes of documents, some of which were marked top secret SCI [Secure Compartmental Information], and refused to surrender them would be the subject of a search warrant or probably a lot worse,” Representative Schiff told me. “They would probably be under arrest. Documents that have those SCI markings often indicate that the information was derived from a very sensitive source, and the revelation of the material in the documents could reveal the source. So when I hear some of my Republican colleagues on the [intelligence] committee tie themselves in knots trying to defend the indefensible, and suggest, ‘Well, these documents were probably a year and a half old,’ our sources last a lot longer than a year and a half. And it could be human, or they could be technical, but if they are compromised, it means that we were blinded in a way that we used to be able to see. And that has real national security implications.”

While the GOP hotheads in the House continue to rail against any and every legal effort to corral Trump, in the Senate there has been a noticeable cooling off of the Trump-at-all-costs rhetoric in the past 10 days or so. Sure, in the hours after the FBI raid, one senator after another jumped to Trump’s defense and accused the FBI and the Justice Department of Gestapo tactics. But once the language of the warrant was released and it was revealed that, like some weird hoarder on a cable reality show, the ex-president was filling his storage areas with boxes of nuclear secrets and other top-level national security information, the Senate went silent. We haven’t heard Mitch McConnell, or even Lindsey Graham—that most malleable and opportunistic of Trump acolytes—leaping into the fray to swat away Trump’s foes this past week. In fact, McConnell let it be known a few days back that he was becoming less optimistic about the GOP’s chances of retaking the Senate in November, and that he viewed Trump and Trump-at-all-costs candidates as being liabilities for the party.

Yet, as the legal vise that Trump is caught within tightens, so his language, his willingness to burn down the American house to save his skin, grows more dangerous. He is, at this point, attacking the very legitimacy of the American state—and implicitly inciting his armed followers to extreme anti-government violence. His online followers now openly talk about “war” to defend him, and far-right media outlets paint Trump as a martyr. Sure, the image of a geriatric, frumpy Trump raising his fist in protest against the FBI raid, looking like a white nationalist caricature of a Black Panther from the 1960s, was nothing if not odd, but for his followers it was a sign of genuine resistance to an oppressive state. Against all evidence to the contrary, they continue to believe that Trump genuinely sticks it to the man.

Still, Schiff, who presided over Trump’s first impeachment and who now sits on the January 6 committee, was under no illusions that Trump would go gently into his political night. “I think Trump is going to run for president for three reasons,” he explained. “To stay ahead of the jailer; he views it as a money-making proposition; and I think it would be intolerable for him to see someone else get the attention if he sat it out in Mar-a-Lago—if he sat it out in Mar-a-Lago to watch Pence or Haley or any of these people become the nominee while he sat stewing. So I think he’s running. And if the election were held today, I think he would be their nominee. Some of the luster has certainly come off of him, I think, even within his own party, but, nonetheless, he is still the dominant force in the party.”

For Schiff, the stakes couldn’t be clearer. If Trump were to win the GOP nomination and then the presidency in 2024, the democratic safeguards would likely no longer hold. Like Liz Cheney, he believes it will take a grand coalition to beat back these unleashed forces of authoritarianism. “I look forward to the day when I can go back to fighting with Liz Cheney,” Schiff said. “But when our democracy is at risk, Democrats and Republicans who believe in democracy need to put our differences aside.”

To that end, Schiff was, he told me, quietly optimistic. “I would say we are past midnight in a good way,” he said. Schiff talked about how midnight is the darkest hour, before the dawn starts to ascend, and how he feels that in this, perhaps American democracy’s darkest hour, the seeds of a new dawn are already taking root—that people have begun paying attention to the magnitude of the crisis and working out ways to protect the democratic institutions and culture of the country.

From the bottom of my heart, I hope Schiff is right about this. Meanwhile, though, the Trump toxins continue to course through the American body politic. Up to 20 million Americans, according to research carried out at the University of Chicago, believe force is justified to return Trump to power, and 50 million-plus Americans believe that Biden stole the 2020 election. That’s as stark an indicator as you can get of the challenges now facing American democracy.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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