A Conversation With Representative Adam Schiff

Tuesday, July 25, 2023
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

U.S. Representative from California (D)


Staff Writer, New Yorker; CFR Member

Representative Adam Schiff discusses Russia’s war in Ukraine, U.S.-China relations, the proliferation of artificial intelligence technologies, and emerging threats to the democratic process, including misinformation and deepfakes.

SORKIN: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California’s Thirtieth District and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. 

I’m Amy Davidson Sorkin, a staff writer at the New Yorker. And I will be presiding over today’s discussion, for which over three hundred CFR members are registered. So we’ve got a lot to talk about. I won’t spend much time on an introduction, as the congressman’s biography should be in the chat.  

And also, he’s no stranger, I should say, to people here. For one thing, Congressman, you were the—you were the lead house manager in President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. And we’re going to talk about foreign policy today, and I don’t want the former president’s legal troubles to take over the meeting. But maybe I could just ask you, you know, there are signs that he might be indicted any day now for the third time in about four months. What’s the one piece of advice you’d have for anyone else leading a prosecution of former President Trump, having to deal with the pitfalls, or the stakes, or any tips you might give? 

SCHIFF: Well, thank you for the question. I don’t know that the special counsel needs any advice. I think he’s been doing a remarkable job. I think his charging decisions in the Mar-a-Lago case were, you know, very straightforward. His choice of venue was very straightforward. I think he did it by the book. I think that’s exactly what he should do. On the January 6 committee, of course, we referred the former president and others to the Justice Department, along with evidence that we believed supported potential prosecution of the former president on multiple potential violations of the law. I have no doubt that the special counsel has been scrutinizing those and trying to determine, you know, where the facts and the evidence lead.  

I will say that I think it took way too long for the Justice Department to get to this point. I don’t think that’s the responsibility of the special counsel. I think he’s moved with swiftness. But it certainly appeared from our vantage point on the January 6 committee—or, from my vantage point anyway—that for almost the first year of the Justice Department investigation they really weren’t focused on the higher ups. It was mostly focused on those who broke into the Capitol and assaulted police officers that day. So I think it’s taken far too long to get to this point. But I hope that the special counsel will wrap this up soon. 

And to me, charges around January 6 are the most serious potential charges the president faces because they involve the most serious offense of trying to defraud the people of the United States, to try to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in our history. And while it will certainly put our democracy to the test, I do think that it would be more dangerous to allow a president who violated the law and abused his power to go with some form of immunity. That would be far more dangerous to the country. 

SORKIN: Do you think—you know, when you’re talking about those dangers, is that the cost of the delay? That we’re now so close to the election? 

SCHIFF: Well, that is certainly, I think, one of the results of the delay, is that we are now much closer to the election. But I think what has really put the system in jeopardy is less the timing of the Justice Department’s work, and more of the irresponsibility of people like Kevin McCarthy and other enablers of the former president who are essentially attacking and trying to tear down the FBI and the Justice Department in order to save their party leader. And it’s this, you know, continued assault on our institutions that has put our democracy on such fragile ground. Instead of, you know, decrying the efforts of the former president to overturn the election and saying that, you know, justice needs to be served, justice needs to run its course, you know, enablers like McCarthy are doing the opposite. And saying this is just a result of his poll numbers, or an attempt to interfere with the election. That may help the criminal defense of Donald Trump, but it really harms our democracy. 

SORKIN: All right. Well, you know, Ukraine. Ukraine’s defense needs were an issue in that first impeachment that you—that you managed, obviously. And they’re obviously an issue now. You know, we’re a year and a few months into the war. Ukraine has stood its ground in an inspiring way, but at a terrible cost. And there’s a sense right now that their counteroffensive has stalled. What’s your perspective on where this ends? You know, what role should The U.S. be playing in bringing the war to a close? 

SCHIFF: Well, I think the administration has really handled this conflict about as well as you could possibly handle it. And that is by providing robust support to Ukraine, by bringing together the international coalition to unite around Ukraine, by imposing punishing sanctions on Russia. And I think did so even before the war began by essentially declassifying intelligence telling the world what Russia had planned. So I think they’ve handled this conflict about as well as possible. And the Ukrainian people, as you point out, have been enormously courageous and steadfast in the defense of their democracy and their territorial integrity.  

And I think the administration needs to hold the course. We need to make sure that the support in Congress remains robust and that we continue to have Ukraine’s back. The precedent that would be set if you Ukraine were allowed to be picked apart, if Russia was allowed to further remake the map and Europe using military force, would be terrible and would have serious repercussions in terms of NATO’s security, but also in terms of the right of self-determination in other parts of the world. It will influence President Xi’s thinking, potentially, regarding the use of military force against Taiwan. So the consequences to democracy, to our collective security are profound. And I think administration needs to continue that robust support. And we need to make sure that bipartisan support remains strong in Congress. 

SORKIN: Well, is it? You know, you were at CFR a little more than a year ago. And at that time, one point of discussion was almost pleasant surprise at how strong the bipartisan coalition in support of Ukraine was. Would you say the same thing now? Is that coalition—is that consensus steady? Or is it breaking down, both within the Republican and within the Democratic Party, to some extent? 

SCHIFF: You know, I think it has remained pretty remarkably strong. You know, both domestically within the United States among the parties, but also internationally. You know, many feared—and, you know, I certainly had my own concerns—with the first winter that Europe would go through with the rising prices of energy in Europe, with, you know, some of our partners who are less steadfast in defense of democracy and how they might undercut or undermine the coalition. But things have remained pretty strong—pretty remarkably strong. And it’s important that they continue to do so. 

Putin made a lot of miscalculations in the run up to the war. He miscalculated the resolve of the Ukrainian people. He miscalculated Zelensky’s leadership ability. He miscalculated our ability to unite Europe and the rest of the world against Russia. The one calculation, though, that Putin made, that he continues to make, that he has to be proved wrong in as well but will remain an open question, is will this matter more to Russia than it does to the West? And we have to show that the West has staying power. We have so far. There have been, as you allude, you know, some defections among the Republican ranks. And, you know, given that their party leader seems to be in the thrall of Putin, and at least for a long time, you know, the leading thought leader in the GOP was Tucker Carlson and his perch on Fox allowed him to trumpet Russian talking points, it’s remarkable that Republican resolve has stayed as strong as it has. Just need to make sure it stays that way. 

SORKIN: Now, you say that—you said that the Biden administration has conducted this war about as well as—as well as they could. But you have broken with the Biden administration on the issue of cluster munitions, which are banned in more than—you know, or more than 120 countries have renounced their use, for reasons that you’ve been outspoken about. They tend to kill civilians decades after a conflict ends. Did the Biden administration make a mistake, a tragic mistake, in transferring cluster munitions to the Ukrainians? 

SCHIFF: I think providing cluster munitions is a mistake. I am afraid of the civilian casualties that may come out of that. And I have, for some time, oppose the use of cluster munitions and wanted the United States to join the coalition—or, the convention against the use of these weapons. You know, there are times where I’ve disagreed with the administration. I supported the provision of those Polish aircraft early in the war. I was probably an earlier supporter of providing the HIMARS than the administration. And I would probably provide those ATACMS as well. But in the broadest outlines, what the administration has been able to do is to give Ukraine what it needs. Not always what Ukraine wants, but what it needs. But also to avoid getting the United States in a hot shooting war with Russia. That’s the most important indicia of their handling of this crisis, I believe, is giving Ukraine robust support and making sure that we don’t embroil ourselves in direct conflict with Russia. 

And when you look at, you know, how Russia is struggling under the weight of all of this, I would say the strategy is having a lot of success. And not as quickly as we would like, you know, and certainly the counteroffensive is going to be difficult in parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine where they have had the chance to entrench their defenses, to mine—put a significant amount of landmines and tripwires and other efforts to slow down Ukraine advance. It won’t, and I don’t think it was ever expected, to move as rapidly as the last Ukrainian counteroffensive. But nonetheless, the problems are very substantial on the Russian side, as we see by this incredible break between Prigozhin and Putin. 

SORKIN: And what’s your reading of that? Do you think—you know, we still don’t really have an incredibly clear picture of what happened in those days when it seemed like a mercenary army might be marching on Moscow. Who do you think the winners and losers in that were? Did Putin come out of it stronger or weaker? What’s your view? 

SCHIFF: I think Putin is unquestionably the loser and came out weaker. I don’t know where Prigozhin ends up coming out of this. He may end up coming out of a window at high altitude. That seems to be a problem these days in Russia. But Putin, unquestionably, has been weakened by this. And I think where it was coming from was probably significantly—as so many things in Russia come from, it was about the money. It was about efforts to essentially induct Prigozhin’s mercenary force into the Russian military and cut out Prigozhin. I don’t have any doubt the Prigozhin is very disillusioned with Russian military leadership. I think a lot of Russians are, which is probably why that, you know, limited rebellion—limited-time rebellion met no resistance along the way. 

But to, you know, gauge Putin’s weakness, you know, we just have to consider the fact Prigozhin shot down Russian helicopters, attacked a Russian command post, and has so far suffered very little repercussion. That’s not a sign of Putin strength. It’s a sign of his profound weakness. You know, I think he has held on with such a strong grip for so long that it looked like he was impregnable. Even so, he could last a long time still, but as many authoritarian regimes have shown in the past, their internal, you know, fragility and brittleness is not often discovered until immediately before the fall. But I think he emerges from this whole chapter much weaker. And I think it’s demoralizing to the Russian forces in Ukraine. And it should be. 

SORKIN: Let me move away from Ukraine for a moment to something that just happened in the last hour or two, which is that a federal judge in California struck down the Biden administration’s new border policy, which had been viewed as having, you know, calmed down the situation at the border in some ways. Do you think the judge got it right? 

SCHIFF: You know, I haven’t had a chance to fully examine the legal reasoning. As a policy matter, I’m in agreement with the judge. I don’t think that we should prohibit people from seeking asylum because they haven’t stayed in a third country, when staying a third country can often be very dangerous. And there’s a long, sad, and well-catalogued list of people that have been the subject of rape, and assault, and murder while waiting in third countries to make asylum claims.  

So I think there just has to be a better system than that. I think the Biden administration has done some things very well. And, you know, this new app that they’ve rolled out, I think, has made that migration process much more orderly. But I am concerned about this bar to entry, you know, in between ports of entry, because I think there are a lot of people who have valid asylum claims that may be denied asylum or put at risk. So from a policy matter, I don’t like the policy to begin with. As a legal matter, I would need to examine the judge’s opinion and as to whether the judge is right that this is not what Congress intended. But I would be inclined to agree on the legal reasoning as well. 

SORKIN: Do you have a sense of what the other options are? You mentioned that there had to be a better way, but what is that better way? 

SCHIFF: Well, I think the better way is to better resource the asylum process so that these claims can be very quickly adjudicated, and where there’s merit there’s merit and where there isn’t that’s revealed as well. I think that having people report on their own recognizance has also shown, you know, considerable success, and is much to be preferred to massive detention and separating children from their parents, which I think is intolerable. So there are better ways, which I think involve resourcing the system, making it more humane but also making it more swift, but not categorically ruling out asylum when it may be very dangerous for people to have to wait in third countries. 

SORKIN: Now, your district in California includes Hollywood, which is the center of a major labor action right now with the movie and television actors and writers. I’ve seen pictures of you out on the picket line. What should people who operate in the realm of foreign policy know about those strikes? What lessons or warnings are in there for them? 

SCHIFF: Well, I believe, you know, you could look at the strike in L.A., and many others around the country, as reflecting the broader economic problems underlying not only the U.S. economy, but the global economy, and which have led, from a foreign policy point of view, to the rise of autocrats around the world. And by, that I mean that the economy is simply not working for millions and millions of people. And this is true in the United States, it’s true in other countries as a result of globalization, automation, and, as will be increasingly the case as a result of AI if policies don’t change. People are being left behind. They’re seeing their quality of life decline below that of their parents. Their fears for their children’s future are profound.  

And this has created a fertile soil at home and around the world for demagogues who promise that they alone can fix it. And demagogues who also make the false and destructive claim that the reason why people are suffering economically or can’t make a go of it is because of people that don’t look like them. So I think there are real foreign policy implications, and implications to our own democracy, by the dramatically changed nature of work. And this is what the strike is about. You know, for people outside of L.A.—and I represent—literally represent Hollywood, is in my district. Most people think that, well, OK, the writers and the actors are striking. But these are, you know, celebrities who are paid, you know, huge salaries, et cetera. They’d be surprised to know that, you know, more than 80 percent of SAG-AFTRA members don’t work enough to get health insurance through SAG-AFTRA. Many just struggled to get by.  

You know, they want to pursue their passion, yes. But they also want to make a living. And I’ve seen how much more difficult the living for people the industry has become over the last ten or twenty years. And what they’re striking for is really the same thing that people are striking for around the country, which is, as technology changes, as the workplace changes, we can’t leave people behind. They need to be able to afford things. Probably the biggest issue of California is the unaffordability of housing. And we can attack that problem in a number of different ways, by increasing supply by addressing the needs of the homeless population. But if we don’t address the underlying economic problems people are facing, or they’re working harder than ever, we’re not going to be able to address these crises. And, you know, it’s counterintuitive at a time when there’s very low unemployment, but the problem today is not that people aren’t working. The problem today is people are working, and they’re just not making enough to get by. 

SORKIN: Now, you mentioned you know, AI. I don’t know that it’s obvious to everybody what AI has to do with, you know, Hollywood actors or, you know, what it has to do—this is something else you’ve talked about—what AI has to do with the threat threats to democracy. How do you connect those? 

SCHIFF: Well, I had a vivid—actually, the first demonstration I got of AI was by somebody in the entertainment industry who, you know, probably nine months to a year ago was telling me that you can tell—you could ask AI, you could ask ChatGPT or one of these other AI systems, to write a(n) eight-series—eight-part series with such and such an arc of character, and it would produce a decent first draft. I mean, not—certainly not good enough to go to film, but it would give you a draft to work off of. And he did a little demonstration for me, not have an eight-part series, but this was before we had announced my Senate campaign. And he said, write a Senate announcement speech for Adam Schiff. And the cursor started moving, it started to produce a speech that included a lot of the kind of things I say. It included a lot of the actual things I have said. You know, it was—it was pretty good. And then it— 

SORKIN: Did you use it at all? (Laughs.) 

SCHIFF: I did not use it, but, you know, that’s—then he asked it, you know, come up with ten slogans for Schiff for Senate. And it came up with ten instantly. I think the first one was: Schiff for Senate, integrity for California, leadership for the nation. And I remember thinking, damn, that’s not bad. But, of course, you can see its application in innumerable ways. Some very helpful, some potentially very harmful. What the writers are concerned with, and actors as well, you know, may be somewhat different than in other fields. For the writers it’s that they’ll be displaced by this technology. For the actors, you know, they want to be able to—for example, people who supplement their income or earn income by being background actors, what most people call extras, you know, they—the studios want to be able to capture your image once, pay for your image once, and then use AI to have your image in innumerable other TV shows or movies. So— 

SORKIN: What’s the threat—yeah, in terms of the democracy part, what’s the threat—not to, you know, the livelihood of your speech writer, but to voters, for example? 

SCHIFF: Well, you know, you can, of course, apply this application in innumerable ways. You know, in California, there’s an issue, for example, with driverless vehicles. It will be an issue across the nation, but California has been pioneering some of this technology. It is displacing drivers. It may displace truck drivers. It may create new safety hazards for people on the road. But you would be hard pressed to find a(n) occupation, profession, job that AI couldn’t do some part of. And this is the danger that, as we have seen now for decades, the increased productivity of the country over time has not been shared as it has increased with the people who make that prosperity possible. It has left too many millions of people behind, and it threatens to do so again, and even in a more accelerated fashion. 

And this is a problem and a challenge for working people in the United States. But it is a problem and a challenge for people all over the world. And it is already leading to great instability. It’s no, I think, surprise that we saw this rise of autocrats in the Philippines, in Brazil, in places all over the globe, and the hardening of other authoritarian regimes in Egypt, and Turkey, and elsewhere as the nature of work has changed. And I think it’s a key part of this struggle between democracy and autocracy. And that is the need to make sure that policymakers adapt to the changing workplace and people aren’t left behind. 

SORKIN: Right. Let me go back for a second to some—you had mentioned, just in passing, Taiwan. And, you know, a while back you said, with regard to our policy towards Taiwan, that less ambiguity is better than more ambiguity. What does that mean, in practical terms? What might it mean if China makes a military move? 

SCHIFF: Well, you know, I think the Biden administration has articulated our policy vis-a-vis Taiwan with greater definition and greater sharpness, sometimes to the consternation of other people in the administration or other foreign policy commentators. But I do think that probably the most valuable thing we can do in terms of preserving the peace in Southeast Asia is to make it clear to China just how severe the repercussions would be, and particularly economic repercussions, so that it would be intolerable for China to sustain them. Because I—you know, I’m no longer serving on the Intel Committee, but throughout my years on that committee I have watched as the threat to Taiwan, the threat of military action by China, has gone up, and up, and up, and up, from what was once a pretty remote threat to one that is much more proximate.  

And I think working with Taiwan to make sure that it’s hardening its defenses, working with Taiwan to make sure that it’s investing in the kind of defenses that would be useful and valuable, not necessarily the bright, shiny objects that have been the center of attraction for its kind of military ruling class. These are important contributions that the Biden administration and the U.S. can make to improving Taiwan’s security, but also reducing the likelihood of a hot conflict in that part of the world. 

SORKIN: Now, you mentioned that you used to be on the House Intelligence Committee, used to be chairman of the House Intelligence community. You were pushed off of it by Speaker McCarthy. And last month, the House voted to censure you on party lines for your role in—basically for your role in impeaching—in the impeachment of President Trump. Against that very partisan backdrop, what’s your view of the current state of intelligence oversight and the relationship between Congress and the intelligence community? Now, if you win your race for Senate, you’ll be taking the seat of Dianne Feinstein, who’s had, you know, a storied career that’s included, at times, confrontations with the intelligence community over the issue of torture, among other things. What’s your perspective on that? 

SCHIFF: Yeah, you know, I think that the intelligence community has been fortunate to be, you know, well led by Avril Haines, and by Bill Burns, and other leadership of the different agencies. I think they have done a remarkable job in sort of calming the waters after the, you know, disastrous Trump years in which many intel leaders were purged, or others were attempted to be purged, and replaced by, you know, cronies of the former president. The period of Ric Grenell was a historically low ebb for the intelligence community, and Ratcliffe wasn’t a whole lot better. So I think things have been restored just to some normalcy.  

And, you know, I do think that McCarthy’s kind of unprecedented effort to, in a partisan way, interfere in the leadership of the Intelligence Committee, you know, brought some disrepute not only to him but also raised questions about whether the committee was going to become sort of cannon fodder for Kevin McCarthy. I think Jim Himes and Mike Turner have done a good job in maintaining comity. We have restored, I think, a fair amount of comity after Devin Nunes left. That also helped, I think, in terms of oversight. But there are some flashpoints ahead.  

Section 702 is a flashpoint. Right now, I think the FBI is more of the focal point for that flashpoint than the intel community leaders. But that’s going to be the real test, getting through that. But I think with the leadership in place, the community is doing the work it needs to do to protect the country. 

SORKIN: Now, I have so many things I wanted to ask you about, but we’re almost at the half hour. So let me just—I think I’d be most remiss in not asking you about the weather. (Laughs.) You know, this has been a hot summer. It’s been a summer of extreme weather. Is this, do you think, the summer where the climate crisis really comes home to people and where there’s—again, to put it in a foreign policy perspective—where there’s a possibility of concerted collective action at the international level? 

SCHIFF: Boy, I have to hope so. It’s hard to imagine more dramatic signs that we’ve already seen. But we’re going to see even more dramatic evidence of climate change in the future if we don’t do more. Now, I’m really so grateful that we did as much as we did in the Inflation Reduction Act. I think that initiative is the most serious effort we’ve made to date to deal with climate change, but it has to be viewed as just the beginning. But I think people are getting the message, sadly, by sustained heat, by flooding, by the increasing severity of storms. The evidence is just impossible to overlook. 

I think it may be starting to move some of the Republicans away from their climate denial. So far, you know, the most they’ve been willing to embrace is planting more trees. Well, planting more trees is nice, though planting more trees is not a comprehensive solution to climate change. But the evidence is all around us. It’s becoming more intense. You know, one thing, if I can just mention, that these two questions have in common—one about the intel community and one about fires—is there’s a great program through NGA and the Defense Department in which our overhead architecture is used to spot incipient fires. And the National Guard is alerted to those fires when they’re small enough to be put out. And this, I think, just signals what an all hands on task problem climate is. 

For years, we tried to establish a permanent center on climate within the intelligence community. We have established a temporary one, but given the gravity of the impacts on national security, as well as every other aspect of our lives, it would make sense to make that a more permanent fixture in the intel world, as well as in every other aspect of our government in our lives. 

SORKIN: It sounds like there’s a lot to do there. 

Connor, do we want to invite members to join? I’d like to invite members to join now, I think. And Connor is going to be taking—handling the questions. And I’d just like to remind everybody that this meeting is on the record. And, Connor, over to you. 

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) 

We will take the first question from Burt Visotzky. 

Q: Thank you. 

Do you want to comment at any length about what’s going on in Israel, and how that’s going to affect our foreign policy at large, Israel itself, Israel-Palestine? It’s a complicated situation. 

SCHIFF: It is complicated. And I share the administration’s concern that the legislation that was pushed through by the prime minister doesn’t enjoy any form of consensus in Israel. You can see this in the massive protests. You can see this in the present work stoppages, likely work stoppages, the extraordinary degree to which military and security leaders have spoken out to express their concern. And, you know, most particularly, in terms of Israel’s security, you have the prospect of, you know, significant resignations from the Israeli military, including their air force, which would be very debilitating in terms of Israel’s security. And we have, obviously, a profound interest in Israel security. 

But, you know, much like our own security at home, it all comes down to the strength of our democracy and theirs. And I do worry about the path that this legislation puts Israel on and whether the subsequent elements of this reform package will be likewise without consensus. And I have to hope, as the administration has urged, that, during this period of recess of the Knesset that there’s an effort prior to that legislation being signed into law for people to try to get to yes on something that bridges the differences in Israeli society. Because there are enough challenges to Israel being surrounded by a lot of hostile neighbors without this kind of vehement internal dissent. 

SORKIN: What are you seeing in Congress about the effect that these controversies within Israel are having on support for Israel as a whole? 

SCHIFF: Well, you know, one aspect of the bedrock of support for the U.S.-Israel relationship has been our common security interests. But it’s also been our common value. And those common values are part and parcel of our common devotion to democracy. Now, you know, there could be debate over different elements of how Israeli government operates, or how it should be reformed. We obviously have our own vigorous debates at home. But, you know, to the degree that a package of reforms moves Israel away from a democratic direction, you know, that would have an impact—you know, a profound impact, I think, not only on people within Israel, but also in how many Americans perceive Israel. And as a friend and ally of Israel, this is why I’m, you know, joining with the administration in urging the parties in Israel to come together to reach some form of consensus. 

SORKIN: All right. 

Connor, do you want to get the next question? 

OPERATOR: Sure, we’ll take the next question from Nelson Cunningham. 

Q: Hello, Congressman. Great to see you. Nelson Cunningham with McLarty Associates. 

Obviously, you’ve recently undertaken a new challenge, which is traveling across the state of California in a Senate race. I’m curious how the foreign policy issues that we talk about today in Washington, and they you’ve addressed so directly, how do they intersect with the voters you’re speaking with all across California? What issues matter? Do they care about Ukraine? Do they care about Israel? I assume some passionately do— immigration? What are the issues that you’re finding resonate out there? 

SCHIFF: Nelson, good to hear your voice. 

You know, I would say probably the foremost foreign policy issue that I’m asked about is Ukraine. And generally from the community that’s very supportive of Ukraine, that wants to make sure that we’re doing everything we can, and expresses concerns about any diminution in bipartisan support for U.S. military aid to Ukraine, but also economic aid, humanitarian assistance. So that’s probably what I hear about the most. I would imagine if I were in California at the moment—I just got back from California for votes tonight—I would be hearing about what’s going on in Israel as well. 

But what most people are talking to me about, and this probably won’t surprise, you are very domestic concerns. And particularly over housing, but also over homelessness, the economic challenges that families are facing, the need to make sure the economy works for everyone. This is really a central topic as I’m traveling around the state. But concerns about our own democracy, frankly, are raised with me far more than concerns about democracies in other parts of the world. There is a great concern with where we’re heading, with the prospect of yet another indictment of Donald Trump and his not-so-thinly veiled calls from time to time for violence. So there’s a profound concern about our democracy, and the planet. To me, these three are the big issues that Californians want us to address, want me to address the Senate—the existential challenge facing our democracy, our economy, and the planet. 

SORKIN: Now, is there such a split between that as a foreign policy and a domestic concern? You know, often in our history, when there are the kind of fears and, you know, points of uncertainty that you mentioned, there’s the blame of a foreign power or the blame of foreign forces. Do you feel it connected for people to issues like that? Or do they see it as we need to focus on what’s going on right in front of us at home? 

SCHIFF: You know, there has been, I think, remarkable support for Ukraine. And I seldom to hear the argument that we need to stop defending Ukraine because we need to do more at home. Now, certainly, we need to do more home. But I rarely hear the two issues tied. And maybe it’s because people have a good sense of the conflict in Ukraine. Unlike other parts of the world that may be less familiar to Americans, they seem, you know, quite comprehending of the stakes in Ukraine, of the plight of the Ukrainian people. They’ve got members of their community from Ukraine, from the diaspora, others that are going to volunteer there.  

But certainly, you know, judging from what most people raise with me, it’s about, you know, bread and butter issues very close to home. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Central Valley of California. The Central Valley if it were its own state would be the poorest state in the union. There, people want to talk to me about the poor quality of the water, the poor quality of the air that they breathe, rural hospitals that are shutting down, the lack of—frankly, the lack of representation from the likes of Kevin McCarthy, who’s focused on other things and seems to have neglected our home state. 

SORKIN: All right, let’s take another question from a member. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Sarah Leah Whitson. 

Q: Hi, Congressman Schiff. Great to listen to you today. Sarah Leah Whitson from Democracy for the Arab World Now. 

Very excited that you will be joining us on October 3 for the unveiling of renaming the street in front of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles Jamal Khashoggi Way. I wanted to ask you about a very important piece of legislation that you passed when you were on the Intelligence Committee, and that is the law, of barring intelligence officials from working for foreign governments, or, I believe, a three-year cooling-off period. Looking at the number of American officials, particularly defense officials, who are now on the payroll of the Saudi government, the Emirati government, and so forth, do you think it’s time that we expanded your legislation to bar government officials from working for foreign governments? Not just intelligence ones, but defense officials and senior civilian officials in the White House and State Department as well? 

SCHIFF: You know, I think it’s something we should certainly explore, because I am concerned about this phenomenon more broadly than just the intelligence community. And I’m concerned too with the—and sometimes they go hand in hand—the proliferation of technologies and technological know-how that is enabling, you know, foreign spy agencies to have greater power to invade the privacy of the American people, to invade the privacy of their own people, to ferret out dissidents, you know, within their home populations.  

So I am deeply concerned about it. I think that there ought to be a serious look within each department within the Department of Defense, as well as other agencies. And, if necessary, the White House needs to develop a policy for its own to make sure that people leaving the government aren’t going to work for countries and interests antithetical to our own. So this is something that I think we should explore more broadly, because it’s not a phenomenon confined to the intelligence community. 

SORKIN: Let me follow up on that, just to get part of the question specifically back to Saudi Arabia. You know, last year you urged the Biden administration to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia to bring it sort of more in line with America’s—with what you referred to—you know, with America’s needs and its values. Has that happened? How are you feeling about the trajectory of the relationship right now? 

SCHIFF: Well, I’m not sure that I would say that it’s been recalibrated. I think it has continued to grow more distant. You know, whatever. agreement or relationship I think President Biden hoped he might have with that now famous fist bump, it certainly hasn’t materialized. The Saudis have done, you know, it would seem at times, everything they can to raise oil prices to suit their own economic interests, undermining our efforts and those of the rest of the world in Ukraine, but as well undermining our effort to bring prices down, for our own constituents. And, and I don’t see its human rights record improving at all.  

And so I don’t see much change in Saudi behavior. I don’t see much improvement in the relationship. I think it’s still time for the administration to really look seriously at the pros and cons of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. This may become more and more important if there’s an effort to work out some deal, you know, that would result in Saudi recognition of Israel, or that involves a Saudi civilian nuclear program. I would greet the Saudis in any of these initiatives with the most enormous of skepticism and suspicion. That the track record has just been that bad. So I would certainly urge the administration to proceed with anything with the utmost caution. 

SORKIN: I have so many more questions about that, and maybe we’ll come back to it. But I think we have another question from a member, so I don’t want to take all the time. Connor, do you want to— 

OPERATOR: Absolutely. We’ll take the next question from Evelyn Leopold. 

Q: Can you hear me? 

OPERATOR: Yes, we can hear you. 

SORKIN: Evelyn, can you—are you mute—I think—Evelyn, I think you’re muted. While we’re figuring out Evelyn’s audio—oh, Evelyn, are you here? 

Q: Yes, I can hear you. 

SORKIN: All right. Now we can hear you. Go right ahead. 

Q: I’ll try it again. On Israel, that you spoke about, do you think there’s any chance that President Biden would slow walk or cut a bit of the billion-plus that we give Israel every year to scare Netanyahu a bit? 

And, secondly, the border question is still—you spoke about that—there are constant stories of mothers still looking for their children under the Trump administration, of the difficulty of getting a hearing. And I don’t know if we’re going to put more personnel there or what, but there’s one terrible story after another. Thank you. 

SCHIFF: With respect to the Biden administration, I don’t expect it to change its policy regarding military aid for Israel, you know, due to the crisis going on within Israel. I think the administration views the U.S.-Israel security relationship as vitally important in its own right. But I would expect the Biden administration to continue to use its diplomatic power to urge Israel to come to consensus and to highlight the dangers to Israel’s own security from this prolonged impasse and period of incredible division in Israel. 

In terms of the border, I think you’re right that there are still some children who were separated during the last administration that have yet to be reunited with their families. And it is just a continuing heartbreak. I think the administration is doing everything they possibly can to try to identify family. But it’s now years later, and that process becomes more difficult not easier over time. But they need to continue it as long as it takes to reunite people. And, you know, the additional resources that I’m talking about are less to do with family reunification. I think they have the resources. Certainly if they needed any more, they have only to ask for them from Congress. But rather to make sure that the process is much more timely, much more efficient, so that we can reduce any time in detention of people that are coming here fleeing violence elsewhere. 

SORKIN: Thank you. I think we have another question, Connor. Could we— 

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take the next question from Robert Tuttle. 

Q: Yes. 

Congressman, could you comment on the effort by No Labels to possibly enter the 2024 presidential race with a third-party candidate? 

SCHIFF: Well, it scares the life out of me, to be candid. And I can give you a two word answer as to why: Ralph Nader. I’m deeply concerned that the result of fielding another candidate could be to tip the election to Donald Trump. Now, we don’t know yet whether he will be the nominee, but he does continue to seem like he has an iron grip on that party, notwithstanding all of the evidence he’s given the American people as to why you should never be entrusted with power again. But I’m deeply concerned about it. And I also think, and I know this is a nonpartisan crowd but so I’m just expressing my own personal view here, that Joe Biden has done a phenomenal job and judged by his accomplishments he will already go down as one of the most historically productive presidents in history. He’s doing, I think, an incredible job with our foreign policy as well. And I think he’s earned the right for another four years. 

SORKIN: And, yeah, just to follow up on that, what do you say to the significant number of Americans, as we’re hearing in polls, who do feel politically homeless? How sustainable is it to only tell them, well, you have to—you have to do this, because otherwise, you know, democracy is in danger. How does either party really reach those voters and give them options that they feel good about? 

SCHIFF: You know, I think you have to reach those voters really on the ground, and in neighborhoods, and in individual conversations. One of the, I think, most profound challenges facing our country. facing the world—and I’m glad for the question because we haven’t had a chance to talk about it yet—is how we get our information. We are more polarized than ever because we are more stovepiped than ever in how we get our information. To me, this is one of the most cross-cutting challenges of all. I’m old enough to have rushed back to my dormitory to watch Walter Cronkite’s last broadcast. That was a time when there was a large body of agreed-upon fact. We might differ with what to do with facts, but at least we agreed there were things called fact. Now, and I think as a result of the last administration, but it’s amplification by, you know, the Foxs, and the Newsmaxs, and the OANs, as well as the impact of the algorithms and social media, we get our information from radically different places. It’s made it increasingly difficult to talk with people. 

I think in a in a world of Walter Cronkite, Joe Biden would probably be at a 70 percent approval rating. But with—you know, with dedicated organs like Fox, which are not news agencies but are essentially a state-run media for one party, you’re never going to have a president, I think, whose popularity is over 55 percent, no matter how great a job they do. So I think what that means is we have to make sure that we’re talking to people on the ground, we’re having conversations in homes and neighborhoods, because relying on the channels of information we have now only goes so far. 

And, you know, I’ll give you an illustration from my own experience on the campaign trail. I was in the Central Valley. What passes for journalism in the right wing was a local reporter came up to me and his question was something along the lines of: Kevin McCarthy says you’re a liar. What do you say about that? 

SORKIN: (Laughs.) What did you say to that question? 

SCHIFF: And I think my response was something along the lines—I think I began by saying something along the lines of, well, I guess coming from Kevin McCarthy, he intends that as some form of a compliment. But here’s what I think is important, people here—there are thousands of people here who can’t drink the water and he’s doing nothing about it. There’s a whole generation of young people growing up with asthma because of the air quality, and he could care less. The hospital in Madera just shut down, and he’s done nothing to get it reopened. And if he won’t represent his constituents in the House, I’ll represent them in the Senate. And to me, you know, not through a media outlet like the one that approached me but through meet and greets like the one I was hosting when he came up to me, that’s how we need to reach people who are getting their information from unreliable places. 

SORKIN: All right. I don’t want to neglect the people who are waiting to ask a question. So, Connor, can we have another question from a member? 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Alison Renteln. 

Q: Hello. Thank you so much for your insights. I’m a professor of political science at USC.  

And it concerns me that the United States hasn’t ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We’re the only country and we haven’t ratified the disability convention. Could you say something about whether you would make it a priority to seek ratification of these human rights treaties in the Senate? And second, where can we sign up to work on your Senate campaign? 

SCHIFF: Well, thank you for the question. The answer is yes, I would, in both cases. And, you know, I have been involved in a number of human rights issues in my tenure in the Congress. And it has never been, in my view, in our national security or other interests not to be championing our values around the world. And, you know, this is why I’m opposed to the use of these cluster munitions, but also why I stood out often against administrations of both parties when we elevated narrow—what we considered to be tactical interests over long-term values. It’s why I was such an outspoken champion of the Armenian Genocide Resolution and other human rights issues. And I will continue champion those issues and those conventions in the Senate. Anyone interested in the campaign can go to Or, if you want to volunteer, can go to—can email [email protected]. Thank you for asking. 

SORKIN: All right. Let’s have another question from a member. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Rebecca MacKinnon. 

Q: Hello, can you hear me? 


Q: Hi. I’m Rebecca MacKinnon. I work for the Wikimedia Foundation.  

And you were talking, Congressman, earlier about the problem of unreliable sources and the political implications of that. And I was wondering if you could talk about your views on a case, Missouri versus Biden, in which recently a judge issued an injunction restricting government officials’ communications with social media platforms. And this case is, of course, tricky about the line between freedom of expression and the First Amendment protections, versus what kind constitutes government interference, versus what just constitutes a conversation with governments talking to platforms about disinformation concerns. And I’d be interested in your views on that, and how you think the law ought to be playing out when it comes to the balance between freedom of expression, First Amendment, and disinformation concerns. 

SCHIFF: You know, I think where the line ought to be drawn is that there should be a free flow of information from the government when it’s concerned about disinformation online. But it can’t become a situation where the government can, by fiat, tell providers what they can say or not say, what they could carry or not carry. But there are, nonetheless, I think innumerable instances in which it’s important for that dialogue to continue. Whether, for example, it’s concern about vaccine disinformation online, or it’s concern about the risk of cyber or ransom attack, or information about the signatures of malefactors using spear phishing or other types of attacks on U.S. infrastructure. We need to be able to have those kinds of conversations. 

And so I think the district judge in that case was wrong, and was hugely overbroad in the injunction it issued. I think the stay of that injunction by the Court of Appeals was appropriate. And I’m, you know, particularly concerned that at a time when some of these social media companies, like whatever Twitter is now calling itself, a have essentially fired, laid off, circumvented, whatever, you know, individuals they had employed to do content moderation, some of these platforms are, like Twitter, becoming a cesspool—a cesspool of hate, and incitement, and disinformation, and misinformation. So there needs to be a dialogue. And it needs to be a respectful dialogue. It needs to be one in which the government is not dictating, but nonetheless is open to share its concerns with these platforms. 

SORKIN: Let me, on that note about a dialogue, you know, I’ve been struck by how many of the questions today have been about alliances and about trust. We’re almost at the end of the hour, but let me just quickly ask you, first of all, to bring it back to Ukraine, the question of NATO membership. Do you agree with the Biden administration’s position that there’s work to be done before that is going to be possible? 

SCHIFF: I do agree. You know, I think during the middle of the war it’s one thing, and I do think that there is work that Ukraine needs to do. But I also believe firmly that this is a decision both for Ukraine and for NATO. That no one outside of NATO gets some kind of a veto. That Russia can’t say we’re not going to allow Ukraine to become part of NATO. And I think, you know, what Russia has done has made the case for Ukraine’s membership in NATO much, much stronger and more powerful. So I think the president’s right about the timing, and right that there is more work to be done. But the president is also right in saying this is a decision that Ukraine and NATO will make, and that no one gets to exercise the veto. 

SORKIN: All right. And a last little mini-question. One of my notes for the end of this meeting, which is fast upon us, is to remind everybody to tune in again on Monday, July 31st at 10:30 a.m. for a meeting with Senator Tom Cotton. I don’t know if just in five seconds, Representative Schiff, if you can suggest a question for Senator Cotton that we might ask? 

SCHIFF: Well, you know, I would guess I would suggest you could ask him whether the situation with Iran, in terms of the advancement of its nuclear program, was facilitated or inhibited during the Trump years. Because it seems Iran is much closer to the bomb after the Trump administration than they were before. 

SORKIN: Thank you for that. That brings us exactly to the hour. I mean, there are so many more questions to ask, but we try to end promptly here. So let me just thank you for joining today’s virtual meeting, everybody. And also, thank you, Representative Schiff. 

Please note, I should say, that the video and the transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on And again, thank you to everybody who took part in this meeting today. And we’ll see you here again soon hopefully.  

SCHIFF: Thanks, everyone. 


Top Stories on CFR

Palestinian Territories

The leading UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees is engulfed in allegations that twelve of its employees were involved in the Hamas attacks on southern Israel. The agency faces severe funding cutbacks, with huge consequences for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. 

United States

New U.S. Census Bureau data shows the United States importing more goods from Mexico than from China. Will the shift change the global trading landscape?