U.S. Representative and Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff discusses the evolving situation in Ukraine, including congressional responses to the war, and the state of democracy in the United States and abroad.
CHAN: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Chairman Adam Schiff. I’m Sewell Chan of the Texas Tribune, and I will be presiding over today’s discussion. Welcome, Congressman.
SCHIFF: It’s great to be with you. Thank you.
CHAN: Congressman, I just finished reading your new book, Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could. I’m struck by some aspects of your own biography. You have ancestors—your ancestors lived in Lithuania, Russia, and Poland. As a student you did study abroad and managed to travel to East Germany and Bulgaria during the height of the Cold War. You started your career as a federal prosecutor just as the Cold War started coming to an end. I guess my first question is, did the Cold War ever end?
SCHIFF: Well, I think the Cold War came to an end, but we certainly seem to be seeing a resurgence of a newly aggressive, dangerous Russia. Now I think Russia is a declining power, but like a lot of wounded animals it’s still very dangerous. Obviously, it has the vast nuclear arsenal. We’re seeing what it’s capable of in Ukraine. But I guess I don’t view this as much a continuation of the old Cold War as a new—different and hot conflict. In many respects, I think the increasing rivalry with China is more of a risk of turning into a cold war than what we’re seeing with Russia.
CHAN: In 2012, President Obama derided Mitt Romney during a—during one of the debates over what is the greatest geopolitical threat to—facing America. You write in your book in the time that has since passed, Romney’s view of the continuing threat from Russia had proved far more prescient than Obama’s. How successful are the parties now in assessing the threat? And did one party do better than another in kind of judging the continuing threat from Russia?
SCHIFF: Well, it’s, I think, a very different picture from when Romney made those comments. Certainly, we see vividly the dangers of Russia. But also in the time between Romney’s comment and the present, we have seen a Republican Party that for four years was utterly sycophantic towards Russia. We saw a president of the United States, the leader of the Republican Party, stand next to the Kremlin dictator in Helsinki and tell the world he trusted the Kremlin dictator over his own intelligence agencies. And so if you’re looking at party to party, the last several years as Russia became more and more dangerous and malignant we saw another capitulation by one of America’s two great parties to Russia.
That has changed. And I think that one of Putin’s miscalculations was that while he expected, all too accurately, that if he invaded Ukraine that he would still be praised as a genius by Donald Trump—and indeed, in the opening hours of the war that’s exactly what happened—I think Putin probably expected that he would be able to bring, that is former President Trump, the Republican Party along with him. That the thought leader of today’s GOP, Tucker Carlson, would be able to bring the Republican Party with him. But that hasn’t happened. I think there’s a strong degree of bipartisan support for crushing sanctions on Russia, for providing the most vigorous weapons to Ukraine to defend itself. And in this, I think Putin badly miscalculated—not so much about Trump, but about a changed direction for the GOP.
CHAN: Was there a larger miscalculation, though, by the kind of foreign policy establishment as it kind of Russia’s intentions? I mean, you know, four presidents now have tried to, in some ways, understand—or, five presidents—have been—dealt with, you know, Vladimir Putin. And he remains, you know, even now, kind of vaguely enigmatic, even as presidents from both parties have tried to look into his soul or reset relations.
SCHIFF: You know, I think you’re right. Both parties have tried to establish a different kind of relationship with Russia. But for Putin, he’s always viewed it as a zero-sum game between the United States and Russia. He’s had a deep paranoia about the United States. I think part of the reason he got so involved in U.S. elections in 2016 was that he was convinced that Hillary Clinton, the State Department, and the CIA were somehow responsible for all the color revolutions that were sweeping the world. None of them, of course, I think, more fearful to him than the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, except, perhaps, for the massive demonstrations that we saw earlier in the last decade in Russia itself.
So I think while, you know, for understandable reasons, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have tried to change the tone with Russia, Putin had a very different endgame in mind. And now I think we’re seeing, as he looks at establishing his legacy, that he wants his legacy to be building the Russian empire back. And of course, Ukraine is the crown jewel, in his view. So I think those efforts by prior administrations were understandable, but they ran into a Putin who simply didn’t want a different kind of relationship with the United States, except on terms that would be utterly unacceptable to the democratic world.
CHAN: Now, of course, the Vladimir Putin of today is probably not the Vladimir Putin of the year 2000. Do you believe he’s a rational actor currently? And is he getting, you know, informational inputs, you know, that give him a—that could give him a clear sense of the reality on the ground?
SCHIFF: It’s hard to call someone who commits the kind of war crimes, unprovoked war against a neighbor—to call them rational. But I wouldn’t call him delusional. I wouldn’t call him mentally ill. I don’t think this is springing from some kind of a mental defect or condition along those lines. I do think that it is born or huge miscalculations on his part. I think it is also a part—a function of his isolation. Not just his isolation physically in his dacha, but also the isolation that he’s created around him by his, you know, dressing down of others in his regime, the degree to which he has instilled fear in anyone who might challenge his thinking or challenge him personally.
So I don’t think that he necessarily was given good advice about what to expect, both of his own military but also of Ukraine and how it would greet Russian troops. I think it was Putin’s expectation this would be over quickly, and if not greeted as liberators the Ukraine resistance would be minimal. It would be no match for the strength of the Russian military. But I think his very insularity probably prohibited or prevented the Russian military from doing the kind of planning it might have done if it was given more advanced notice about what exactly Putin was intending.
So I think it was a lot of miscalculation, a lot of isolation, a lifelong desire to rebuild the greatness of the Russian empire, a desire—a hunger to burnish his own legacy in Russian history. I don’t know whether to describe that as rational or irrational, but I don’t think it’s the produce of mental illness.
CHAN: As you point out, the invasion of Ukraine has kind of brought about some kind of rare bipartisan unity in Congress. A lot of—you’ve called recently for action on expedited resettlement of Ukrainian refugees. You’ve called on the intelligence community to, you know, bring evidence of war crimes or crimes against humanity to, you know, the relevant authorities and international bodies. Of course, Congress has been very unified in supporting additional military aid. What’s the mood from the Hill right now? And did the degree, and the extent, and speed of this unified response surprise you?
SCHIFF: I think that the degree to which the United States and our NATO and other allies came together around this really punishing set of sanctions, I would say, surprised me. I think it surprised Putin. And I think it may have surprised even our allies. I mean, I can’t imagine that Germany would have expected some months ago that it would decide to be providing lethal support to a country in Europe to defend itself against Russia, or that the Swiss would decide that they were willing to use the banking system to help impose sanctions on Russia.
So I think we have seen a dramatic shift. But I think part of the credit for that really goes to the administration, but also to the intelligence community. And I think that the administration has done something strategic with intelligence that in the decade I’ve served on the committee I haven’t seen before. Prior to the war, as you know, the administration was very forward-leaning in declassifying intelligence that showed exactly what Putin was intending. Being very public about it, that he intended to invade, that it wasn’t going to be a small invasion, that he intended to encircle Kyiv, install a puppet regime. And I think while it was our expectation on the committee, and I think the expectation of the intelligence community that the disclosure of this intelligence wasn’t going to stop Putin. What it did do was strip away any pretext that he was hoping to use, laid bare the nakedness of this Russian aggression.
And I think in doing so, even when Zelensky didn’t believe it was going to happen, and many of our allies didn’t believe it was going to happen—when it did come to pass, when the intelligence proved to be so awfully correct, I think it did help us build international support for those sanctions. So I think that was a key consequence of that really strategic use of declassification.
CHAN: So our information and finance kind of becoming the new frontiers of war? You know, I’m really struck by, you know, that declassification, by the very consistent messaging about what Russia was likely to do, and the extensive use of, you know, the treatment of Russia’s sovereign debt. You know, are there any—are there any kind of potential unexpected consequences of the—of the use of these realms as kind of a theater of conflict?
SCHIFF: Well, I would say a couple things. You know, the declassification of intelligence continues, and I think continues to be very important. The administration talking about Russian plans to potentially do a false flag operation around the use of chemical or biological weapons, that may actually have deterred the Russians. Now, it may not deter them indefinitely, but I think it has had a chilling effect. Likewise, disclosures about Russian appeals to China for help I think tell President Xi that if he gets involved in helping Russia evade sanctions or providing weapons to Russia, he will not do so clandestinely. China will be exposed, and he will have Ukrainian blood on his hands. I think that also has a chilling impact.
So I think one of the reasons why this has happened, to the degree that it has, is that Bill Burns, our CIA director, comes out of the diplomatic corps. I think it might have been more difficult for a career intelligence guy to countenance the disclosure of so much intelligence. But I think that Director Burns understands the important role of information in a conflict. Now, in terms of difficult questions, I think the difficult questions have revolved more around efforts to attack the dissemination of Russian disinformation. And, you know, there have been, I think, some successful attempts to take back RT, for example, in different places, including the United States.
At the same time, you know, one of the major cable news networks, Tucker Carlson, the primetime show of which is disseminating a lot of Kremlin talking points. When you have someone that the Kremlin decides ought to be rebroadcast on RT, you can tell what good propaganda they believe it is for them. So while we’ve been successful in taking down some of the Russian outlets and Russian disinformation, sadly we have some Americans who are helping push out Kremlin talking points.
CHAN: Do you believe that the kind of—is the Western—are the Western alliances being renewed by this? Have you been struck—what’s your assessment of the kind of unity of NATO, the European Union? Obviously, we just had the election in France in which, you know, frankly, one of the candidate’s ties to Russia was, I think, a very real factor—certainly in a run-off situation. Do you see—you know, do you see that, you know, alliance renewing itself? And what do you make of Germany’s commitment to increase its defense profile?
SCHIFF: I think it really has had exactly the opposite effect that Putin hoped in terms of NATO. And I attended the Munich national security conferences a couple years ago, right before the pandemic. And then I joined the speaker attending the one just a few weeks ago. The last one I attended the subject was—the theme of the conference was—this is the one a couple years ago—was West-lessness. As in “restlessness.” As is, is there a West anymore? Is there a reason for NATO anymore? Well, the theme this year could not have been a sharper contrast. Gone were any questions about the relevance of NATO. And the conference was really subsumed with how we can strengthen NATO and make sure that we work together to counter what Russia is doing, and renewed understanding of just how important that alliance is.
And now, in a kind of fitting rebuke of this bloody campaign by Putin, you have additional nations talking about ending their neutrality and joining NATO. That had to be the last thing that Putin wanted to see happen. But I really do think it has reinforced in Europe that some of these old reasons to have a strong defense budget are not so old after all. They’re not so antiquated. In fact, Russia remains a grave threat to its neighbors. And in both respects, budget and NATO, there’s been a real, I think, crystallization of views around the importance of protecting ourselves collectively in the face of Russian aggression.
CHAN: How worried are you about the possibility of this conflict taking yet more—intensifying more? About the risk of use of chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons?
SCHIFF: I’m gravely concerned about the use of chemical weapons. Honestly, the Russians have no moral compunction about doing it. They have done that or supported that in the past in other conflicts. In terms of the risk of a nuclear—tactical nuclear device, you know, hearing the Russian ambassador talk about it is just so irresponsible. I think he’s obviously doing it for a reason. I don’t think the reason he’s doing it is that they’re actually contemplating doing this. And I certainly don’t see any signs of that happening at this point in time. But merely his willingness to talk about it and put it within the realm of contemplation by Russia is horribly irresponsible.
Now, I don’t think they would go to that step barring NATO military involvement that threatens Russia. And I don’t mean by the provision of weapons to Ukraine, but actually if we got into a fight between NATO forces and Russian forces. And obviously we’re doing everything to make sure that we can that that doesn’t happen, right? And I think the president was exactly right to rule out a no-fly zone, which would require us to be shooting down Russian aircraft, destroying Russian anti-aircraft systems within Russia. So I think we’re doing everything we can and everything we should. There are a few things, like the Polish MiGs, that I support which—providing, that the administration may not. But by and large, I think we are doing everything we can to help Ukraine without risk of that kind of escalation.
You know, the remaining danger is that Putin has staked everything on this. And so he has cut off his own exit ramps. Now, where this seems to be headed is into a potential and bloody war of attrition. That’s not inevitable, and there’s still risks that Russian forces could encircle Ukrainian forces and we could see a dramatic change in fortune. Obviously, we’re doing everything to support Ukraine to prevent that kind of thing from happening, but war is unpredictable. And so I don’t think that kind of escalation in terms of a tactical nuclear weapon is likely. The fact that it is even subject of discussion, though, ought to concern all of us.
CHAN: Congressman, you’ve had a lot of opportunities over the last few years to think about President Volodymyr Zelensky and to examine his communications. Has his performance as a wartime leader kind of surprised you? And how do you assess that performance so far?
SCHIFF: I think it surprised Putin. I think that he may have imagined that Zelensky would flee the country, or that he didn’t have the stature to lead a country through war. I don’t know that he had a long enough track record for us to really anticipate what kind of a wartime leader he would be. I’m not sure whether you can really know until you’re faced with those circumstances. He has been just remarkable, and certainly put his communication skills to incredible use. But, you know, particularly in those early days and weeks of the war, staying in Kyiv—staying exposed to harm really was not only a courageous thing to do, but it really, I think, rallied—help to rally Ukraine, and rally the rest of the world. So he has been just incredible.
And you know, one thing I think this conflict—there’re are a couple impacts this conflict has had that you can look back on and see continuing themes. The first is that the world has now gotten to know who Volodymyr Zelensky is. Back when Donald Trump was trying to extort him by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to fight the Russians, and even then at that time Ukrainians were fighting and dying at the hands of Russians every week, sometimes every day—the world now has a sense of just who Donald Trump is trying to shake down and extort. And also what a pernicious threat we were trying to help the Ukrainians defend against.
And I think that the stain of what Trump did now is much more visible to the country and the rest of the world. And to the degree to which Donald Trump, you know, wrapped himself all around Vladimir Putin, never had an unkind word to say about the Kremlin dictator, fawned over him, I think that that also tars this flirtation that the GOP and Donald Trump have had with authoritarianism. And I hope it reminds Americans of the dangers of autocracy, because there is this strand running through the GOP of this fondness for the dictator, for the autocrat, for the strongman. And now we see where that leads. And so I think those have been important impacts. The world now knows who Zelensky is, who Donald Trump was trying to shake down. But also knows much more about who Vladimir Putin is, the man that Donald Trump wrapped his arms around so tightly.
CHAN: Congressman, I want to turn your attention now toward kind of threats to democracy including, you know, within America itself. You know, your book talks about essentially two—really two investigations, right? One is the Mueller Report and investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And the second investigation, of course, is the impeachment trial that you presented as the leader of the House managers regarding withholding—or, the conditioning of military aid on Ukraine’s cooperation with an investigation into the Bidens. And is there—is there an argument that the first impeachment trial made it harder for the second one, focused on January 6th, to succeed?
SCHIFF: No. I think really quite the opposite. During the first trial, you know, it became apparent during the trial—largely through the public comments of Republican senators—that we proved exactly what the president was charged with. That he withheld these hundreds of millions of dollars of aid, that there was a quid pro quo, that he did it to try to get Zelensky to try to help him cheat in the election. But at that time, it also became apparent to me, when these Republican senators basically said he’s guilty of what he’s charged with, but that’s not enough for me to vote to risk my career, to risk my position in the Republican Party—not enough for me to vote to convict, that we needed to show more.
That is, we needed to show that if left in office, Donald Trump was a continuing danger to the country. And I remember making the point during that trial, what are the odds, if left in office, that Donald Trump will try to cheat in the next election? Not 5 percent, not 10 (percent), not even 50 percent, but 100 percent. And by the time the second trial came to pass, exactly what we had warned about had come to pass. And so for anyone who, during the first trial, wasn’t convinced that he would be a continuing danger, they had the proof of—the most abundant proof possible in the second trial. The senators, the jury themselves, had to flee for their lives. How much more graphic could the proof be?
And so if anything, I think that some of the senators who voted to acquit in the first trial had regret about what they did, about lacking the courage that Mitt Romney demonstrated. And I think that made it more essential, more—and easier for them to vote to convict the second time. But I will say this also, because you brought up the Russia investigation. When Bob Mueller testified—and this, to me, and as you may recall I had resisted the calls for impeachment during the Russia investigation. I wanted to wait until we finished our investigation and Mueller finished his. When Mueller testified and Donald Trump believed that he had escaped the jailer, it was the very next day that he was on the phone with Zelensky trying to shake him down.
And what that said to me is the failure to hold him accountable for his Russia misconduct led directly to his view that he could get away with worse misconduct. The acquittal of that worse misconduct and a subsequent acquittal for even more serious misconduct that led to a violent attack on our Capitol, you can also draw a straight line and ask: Where does that lead, if there’s no accountability here? And I think that leads us to a very, very dangerous place.
CHAN: Congressman, in your book you describe the Republican Party as, quote, “an anti-truth, anti-democratic cult organized around the former president,” end-quote. Yet, you, yourself, have been often portrayed by the Republicans as being, you know, hyper partisan. How do you see—you know, how do you see getting around that with—when you’re as blunt as you are?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, if you—if you look back before Donald Trump took office, hyper-partisan is probably the last descriptor my Republican colleagues would use for me. My reputation was really quite different, as pretty nonpartisan, more or less a national security/foreign policy expert in the House. And what changed was not me. What changed was we had a leader of one of America’s great parties who wasn’t devoted to our democracy and was a danger. And look, if that made me a lightning rod, then it was going to make me a lightning rod. But I was going to do my job.
In terms of the Republican Party being an anti-truth cult, and whether—is that too hyperbolic, we only have to look at the last week to see how tragically on the mark that is. Kevin McCarthy, in an audio tape, was demonstrated to have blatantly lied about what he was saying after January 6th. Now, if that wasn’t enough—and it obviously isn’t enough—the fact is that after January 6th he was acknowledging Donald Trump’s responsibility for some of what happened on the 6th. He was talking about calling on Trump to resign or thought he should resign.
And the reason why he is still a candidate for leadership in the GOP and Liz Cheney was forced out of her position was that Kevin McCarthy was willing to lie about all that and Liz Cheney wasn’t. And so is the Republican Party defined by hostility to truth? Plainly, it is. If you are willing to tell the truth about some of the most consequential things, there’s no place for you in Donald Trump or, it would appear, in Kevin McCarthy’s party.
CHAN: Congressman, a final question before we move to members’ questions. As much as we’ve learned about the events of January 6th, you know, it seems that the twenty-four, forty-eight, seventy-two hours after January 6th are equally pivotal. You had in that moment some very serious criticism from McConnell, from majority leader—Minority Leader McConnell, and Kevin McCarthy. And what do you think switched? Was it—was it just a reading of political reality? Was it kind of grassroots activism and calling of congressional offices? Why was that kind of moment when Trump seemed most vulnerable, why was it so fleeting?
SCHIFF: You know, it’s a great question. And of all the things that have happened over the last several years, I find myself agonizing the most about this. Because there was a window after January 6th where the country might have turned a corner. Now, I thought when Joe Biden was elected that we had turned a corner, that our democracy was now on much more solid footing. But after January 6th in particular I thought, surely now—surely now that the country has seen the dangers of Trump and Trumpism, the GOP will repudiate everything that he represented.
And for a very short time, it looked like that was exactly what was going to happen. You heard Kevin McCarthy on the House floor talking about how Donald Trump bore some of the responsibility for what took place. You heard Mitch McConnell in just blistering terms talking about how Donald Trump was morally and practically responsible for this and used the largest bully pulpit in the world to convince people of this lie. And yet, within two weeks Kevin McCarthy was down at Mar-a-Lago begging forgiveness and Mitch McConnell was asked, well, if he’s the leader of your party again will you support him? And his answer was “absolutely.”
So what happened in those two weeks? And what happened in those two weeks is that Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell determined that if they tried to throw Trump overboard, they themselves would be thrown overboard. And there was something more important to them than doing what was right for the country, and that was doing what was right for them to keep their positions in power.
The historian Robert Caro—and this is a theme I keep coming back to in the book—once said in an interview that power doesn’t corrupt as much as it reveals. It doesn’t always reveal us at our best, but it says a lot about who we are. Well, power has said a lot about who the people are that I serve with in Congress. It has shown Liz Cheney to be a person of great courage and conviction. It has also shown that when she would not repeat this lie being told by her party about the election, that Elise Stefanik put up her hand and said: I’ll tell that big lie. If I can have her position, I’ll tell any lie that you need.
And, you know, tragically, there have been dozens and dozens of Elise Stefaniks for every Liz Cheney. And, you know, it, I think, was a time in our country, and it’s still a time in our country when we’re learning a lot about ourselves. And not just in Congress, but we’re learning a lot about ourselves as a country. Some really unpleasant truths. And one of the most unpleasant truths is it can happen here. All the things that we never imagined could happen here, so many things have already taken place that we would never thought possible. We are not immune from the same forces of xenophobic populism, the same willingness to demonize the other. And, as it turns out, the siren song of ambition, that will cause us—some of us to tear down our own democratic institutions to suit that ambition.
CHAN: Thank you, Congressman. At this time, I’d like to invite CFR members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue. Thank you, Congressman.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from Jeff Smith.
Q: Mr. Chairman, Jeff Smith from Arnold & Porter.
A question. One of the responsibilities of the intelligence community is to assess how other countries look at us, and how what happens here affects our leadership overseas, particularly our power. What can you tell us about the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community of how our—how other countries look at us, both our allies and our adversaries, as a result of our own political dysfunction and, as you’ve so aptly described it, this sort of infatuation with the strongmen of the world that don’t care about world order and rule of law?
SCHIFF: Well, I think the assessment of our intelligence community is really—mirrors the assessment of a lot of very credible academic analyses of attitudes towards America around the globe. China, while we have been fiddling and burning over the last several years, China has been moving ahead. Marching ahead and making the case around the world for what it calls its model. It holds up, I think, January 6th as exhibit A for how our democracy is essentially antiquated, can’t keep pace with times, leads to instability. And the Chinese are promising prosperity and stability. And so I think that it has really—this internal discord, this flirtation with autocracy, has really undermined a lot of the democratic world’s view of the United States, but also countries in Central Asia and elsewhere—made them much more amenable to China’s message. And so it’s been a huge setback.
And I’ll tell you, the first time that I was acutely aware of this was traveling with John McCain. And I—this was, I think, three years ago. Again, Munich Security Conference. The wonderful thing about traveling with John McCain is he could invite anybody to dinner, and they would come. And we had dinner with Bill Gates—(audio break)—which is not my usual dinner company. And at the end of the evening, we started to tell some jokes, and (Bob ?) told a joke about being Irish. And then he got very serious. And he said, I’m very proud of the Irish. I’m very proud of Ireland. But Ireland, like most countries, is just a country. America is also an idea.
And I realized the moment that he said it that this was what was at risk, the very idea of America. And when Joe Biden tells the story of going to Europe and saying, America is back, and having someone say, yeah, but for how long? This is—this is the challenge that we’re facing. That is, the rest of the world has seen that there is this vein running through America, this dangerous vein of sympathy towards authoritarianism now. And so it’s going to take nothing but time to convince the rest of the world that America is back, and back to stay. That our commitment to democracy is something that we cherish and will not give up. But we have been done some lasting damage. And I think that’s not only the assessment of the IC, but in accord with what academics have also undertaken and understood in their research.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Sarah Leah Whitson.
Q: Congressman Schiff, Sarah Leah Whitson from Democracy for the Arab World Now. Really good to see you and thank you for all your great and courageous work in Congress.
You talked about the revelations of power and how it impacts our government. And of course, recently we’ve heard revelations of a $2 billion Saudi government investment in Jared Kushner’s Affinity Partners. Would you support a congressional investigation that inquires into the ethics and whether any laws of ethics were breeched in the solicitation and securing of this very large investment by the Saudi government? And you, yourself, have proposed legislation that would restrict the ability of former intelligence officials to work for foreign governments. Would you support what DAWN is calling for, an expansion of the conflict of interest laws that would prohibit all senior government officials from working for foreign governments for at least several years from their service in government?
SCHIFF: Well, thank you for both questions. You know, first, turning to Jared Kushner, I don’t want to take this opportunity to announce a new congressional investigation. I can tell you that we were concerned during the course of the Russia investigation and remain concerned to this day that foreign powers looked at the Trump family as an opportunity to influence the course of U.S. policy. And I think, given the president’s fixation on money and that of so many of his family around him, they made very vulnerable targets. You know, the renting of hotel rooms at Trump Hotel that Gulf nations didn’t even occupy—this is a way of trying to exert influence.
If Gulf or other nations were also either negotiating or investing in Trump properties, then it’s ripe for conflict. And I’ll give you one more example, which I frankly think is exhibit A, even though it did not come to pass, is Moscow Trump Tower. During Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, he was lying to the country about having no business interests in Russia, while he was pursuing what might have been the most lucrative deal of his life. And, you know, and something—and I mentioned this in the book—this is an anecdote in the book because to me it was so telling of this whole conflict question and what was potentially driving Donald Trump. Sometimes the compromise is just out in the open.
When he was found out—this was six or seven months now into his presidency. When he was found out that he’d been lying to the country about no business interests, and he had been pursuing this Trump Tower deal right up to the Republican Convention—to the eve of the convention. His answer was so telling, which was, I might have lost the election, why should I miss out on those opportunities? And I think that continued to be a motivation throughout his presidency; that is, he might lose his reelection, why should he miss out on the opportunities to build the tower he’s wanted to build his whole life and one that would never be built but for the blessing of Vladimir Putin? And so I’m deeply concerned about those financial conflicts and certainly support any continuing look at how other nations may have influenced U.S. policy, whether it’s the former president or anyone else.
In terms of your second question about former intel people, I am deeply concerned with former intel people going to work for technology firms associated with other countries, developing technologies that can be used to spy on dissidents or even spy on other Americans, and so we are examining that question and have been for some years now on the Intel Committee to try to arrive at what the right remedies are. And, you know, whether it’s a revolving door along the lines that you suggest or stronger prohibitions against or disclosure so that it can be stopped, we’re looking at what’s the best mechanism to make sure that U.S. taxpayer investment in our national security isn’t later used against U.S. national interests or values.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Bernard Schwartz.
SCHIFF: Hi, Bernard.
Q: Hi. It’s nice to see you again. More importantly, it’s nice to hear you—not because it’s nice, because it’s so important.
I have a question that should be concerning all Democrats. And how do we manage the midyear election so that we can prevail to have continued influence in the affairs of the state, affairs of the country, of the world? I think it’s essential that we win this election.
SCHIFF: Well, you know, let me make a couple points on that, Bernard; thank you for the question. The first is there were multiple lines of effort to overturn the last election. January 6th was the violent culmination of those efforts, but one of those efforts ran through the House of Representatives. Had Kevin McCarthy been speaker in 2020 he would have overturned the election in the House. Should Donald Trump run and lose in 2024 and Kevin McCarthy be in the speaker’s office, he will vote to overturn the result of the election if Donald Trump insists that he do so. I don’t think you can have someone with that little devotion to oath of office, Constitution, or country in that position.
In terms of how—you know, I’ll take your question very broadly. How do Democrats win the midterms? I think we are going to have to make the case that the economy is moving in the right direction. I’m assuming that inflation will still be with us in the fall. What I think is more important than banking on that underlying condition being gone—and, obviously, we’re going to do everything possible to attack that problem of inflation. The first priority has to be the best interests of the country and that is in attacking the problem of inflation.
I think that the imperative is to make the case for why under the Biden leadership we have moved the country economically in the right direction, and there is a powerful case to make. I think that the White House needs to be out there every day making the case that last year the president created 6.7 million jobs, more than any president in history. Last year the president and the administration and Democrats in Congress brought the unemployment rate down from X to Y. No economist, left, right, or center, thought that was possible. We did that. Our economy two quarters ago grew faster than China’s economy for the first time in two decades. We were able to compete and beat China’s economy.
Yes, inflation is still a challenge, a pernicious one, and we are attacking it, and you know who’s standing in the way are Republican legislators who won’t support bills to bring our supply chain back home and bring down inflation. But you know what else is going up? Wages are going up. I mean, these are the arguments, the case that I think needs to be made much more forcefully by the White House and I think if we make that case to the American people, then we can hold on to our majority in the House and gain ground in the Senate and we can pass voting rights and move the country forward. But I do think, as in times in the past, it’s still the economy. We have a good story to tell of the progress we’ve made under this administration and I think we need to be much more aggressive in telling that story.
CHAN: Thank you.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Carole Artigiani.
Q: Hi, this is Bob Scott and Carole Artigiani and we’re both educators.
And thinking about the comments about threats to democracy, we’re reminded that there is a federal mandate for September 17th to be a day for schools and colleges to focus on the Constitution and its meaning. What are some ways you would recommend that schools and colleges use this mandated occasion to talk about the threats to the Constitution that exist?
SCHIFF: Well, I think it’s a great question because it does get to one of the deficits that have resulted in our democracy hanging by a thread and that is the lack of sufficient civics education about our Constitution and what it provides and how it’s enforced, the vulnerabilities that we have in our constitutional system, and I think that day, as you point out, can be a very powerful tool to focus the attention of educators on that. And in terms of how we do that, you know, I think a lot of that responsibility falls at the state and local level and that means, I think, that we need to organize at the state and local level to make sure that this is a vital part of the curriculum and not just in print, that it is actually taught and taught effectively.
I do want to point out, though, that, as important as that is, a lot of the reason I believe we are where we are is what happens after people get their civics education. It happens after they leave high school. And they come to live in information bubbles in which they’re not exposed to contrary views anymore. In my opinion, probably the most cross-cutting challenge the country faces and one integral to our democracy is simply the way we get our information. I’m old enough to remember rushing back to my dormitory in college to watch Walter Cronkite’s last broadcast. That was a time when there was a large body of agreed-upon fact, and we might differ with what to do with those facts but at least we agreed that there were facts. For four years Americans were told they were entitled to their own alternate facts. I think of all the things that took place in the last administration, among the most corrosive to our democracy was this relentless attack on the truth. You can have people understand the Constitution and what it provides, but if they aren’t exposed to the truth, if they aren’t willing to believe the truth, none of it works.
You know, my takeaway after two impeachments wasn’t that there was some flaw in the Constitution or that senators didn’t understand what the Constitution provided, but rather, if people aren’t willing to live up to their oath of office, if they don’t give that oath meaning with ideas of right and wrong, if they’re not willing to accept the plain truth, then none of it works. And I see all the time the stovepiping of information in our country now. I’ll get off the train somewhere and the first person will come up to me and say, are you Adam Schiff, I just want to shake your hand, you’re my hero, and the next person, standing right next to them, will say, you lie all the time. Why do you lie all the time? And I will look at these two people and I’ll say, I know what you’re watching and I know what you’re watching, and it’s not the same thing because I’m the same person and I can’t be both those things. And to me this is among the most profound challenges, this revolution in how we get our information.
So I think the civics education, as you point out, is a really, really important piece. I think the piece also, though, about where we get our information after we get that education is equally important and we have yet to scratch the surface in figuring out how we solve that problem.
OPERATOR: We will take our last question from Cathy Gay.
Q: Hi. Cathy Gay from Catherine Gay Communications. One comment and one question.
I’m a huge supporter of President Biden, a huge fan, but I’d like to hear what you have to say about the Hunter Biden controversy and how that should be dealt with. And the second thing I’d just like to say is I’m working on a huge project to find solutions to mis- and disinformation and I’d love to get in touch with you and maybe you can give the Council permission to give me a good way to reach you.
SCHIFF: Happy to reach out and make contact on that. Thank you.
In terms of Hunter Biden, I think the Justice Department ought to do its investigation thoroughly by the book, completely objectively, and reach whatever conclusion it’s going to reach without political interference of any kind. And I think that’s how that ought to be resolved. And I think that this administration, unlike the last one, is properly drawing a line and has built a wall and is maintaining the wall between the White House and the Justice Department so that that’s exactly what the Justice Department will do, and that couldn’t be a more striking contrast with the last administration.
Under Bill Barr—and I spent almost six years with the Justice Department; it’s an astonishment to me to this day that we had an attorney general willing to do this. Bill Barr intervened in specific criminal cases involving people who lied to either cover up for themselves or cover up for the president, intervened in the case of Roger Stone to reduce his sentence recommendation, intervened in the case of Michael Flynn to make the case go away altogether. That was unthinkable since Watergate. And I think Attorney General Garland is appropriately keeping a distance from the White House in specific cases. I think that’s the way it should be, that’s the way it needs to be, particularly when it comes to either the president or a family member of the president.
CHAN: Thank you for joining today’s virtual meeting, and thank you to Chairman Adam Schiff. Thank you for your generosity of spending this past hour with us. Please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. Thanks.
SCHIFF: Thank you.