In This Episode
This week, just as Donald Trump was placed under arrest and arraigned for stealing and concealing troves of state secrets, House Republicans advanced a resolution to censure Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, who’s been one of their main boogeymen since the early days of the Trump administration. The resolution, which failed Wednesday afternoon, is best viewed as a diversionary tactic, and an attempt to pin Trump’s legal woes on Schiff, who was instrumental to Trump’s first impeachment and one of the Democrats’ most effective communicators about Trump’s corruption. The Congressman joins host Brian Beutler to discuss the latest Trump indictment, how vulnerable Trump is now, and what the Republican party’s continued loyalty to the former president means for their political future.
Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me your host, Brian Beutler. Donald Trump got arrested again this week, this time by the feds. He was taken into custody in Florida and arraigned. He pleaded not guilty to 37 counts of stealing state secrets and then concealing them unlike basically every other major violator of the Espionage Act, though he was then allowed to walk out of court without posting bail to fly back to New Jersey for a big party and fundraiser at his Bedminster Golf Club.
Donald Trump: Today, we witness the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country. Very sad thing to watch. A corrupt sitting president had his top political opponent arrested on fake and fabricated charges of which he and numerous other presidents would be guilty. Right in the middle of a presidential election in which he is losing very badly. [applause]
Brian Beutler: The Republicans who greeted him there have been very busy because I think they his defenders are pretty desperate trying to mislead the public about the severity of the allegations in the indictment. They’ve defended Trump for storing these stolen documents in plain view of his Mar-a-Lago guests and in bathrooms there. They’ve been pretending to believe there’s a double standard here, saying what about Hillary Clinton or what about Joe Biden or what about Hunter Biden? They’ve promised retribution. They say they want to arbitrarily prosecute Democrats now to sort of settle the score. Marjorie Taylor Greene has proposed trying to defund the special counsel’s office, which would effectively end the investigations of Donald Trump. And it raises the possibility that Republicans will shut down the government if this prosecution continues. In the Senate. J.D. Vance has announced that he’ll serially filibuster Justice Department nominees unless DOJ agrees to put Trump above the law. I think it’s fair to say they’ve actually started their diversionary revenge campaign already with what limited power they currently have. This week, they advanced a resolution to censure Congressman Adam Schiff, who’s been one of their main boogeymen since the early days of the Trump administration. The resolution itself, the text of it is hard to parse unless you’re deeply immersed in the right wing propaganda ecosystem. But the implication is that Donald Trump had to deal with multiple Russia investigations and got impeached for shaking down Ukraine. All because Adam Schiff was talking about those things and lying about them, they say. Of course he wasn’t lying. And so on top of being censured, some of them say he should have to pay the government a $16 million fine, which is, I guess, half the cost to the government of funding Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation. In any event, that version of their censure resolution failed on the floor despite overwhelming support from Republican House members. But its authors insist they’ll keep tweaking it and bringing it back until it passes. It’s all very on brand for them. But to me it raises some important questions both about the prosecution itself and about the impact it will have on U.S. politics. On the other hand, they’re doing that by essentially defending a bunch of extremely well-documented criminal behavior. And you’d think or maybe you’d like to think that that could take a political toll on them. For now, they seem content to just burn the ships, own all of Trump’s criminal deeds, and then just see how it plays out come campaign season, if that’s their plan. What’s the appropriate role for Democrats? How should they let the public know the Republicans are lining up in support of egregious national security crimes with ridiculous defenses of hiding state secrets in a country club bathroom and so on? Well, part of the reason they’ve taken such an interest in Adam Schiff is that he’s been one of the Democrats most effective communicators about this stuff, which I imagine will feature pretty heavily in his campaign for Senate in California. So that’s why he’s our guest this week to help us grapple with these thorny questions about how vulnerable Trump is and what the Republican Party’s continued loyalty to him ought to mean for their political future. Congressman Adam Schiff, welcome to Positively Dreadful. We’re really happy to have you.
Adam Schiff: Great to be with you.
Brian Beutler: So let’s get to the Trump indictment in a minute. But my first question is, where are you going to come up with $16 million?
Adam Schiff: [laughs] I’m going to have to get my paper out again. Well, look, you know, it would be it would be funny, I guess, if it weren’t such a waste of house resources and time. But also if it wasn’t their effort to intimidate and silence someone they believe is effective in going after holding accountable former President Trump, this is a message shot across the bow that Democrats would stand up to their wannabe autocratic leader are going to face penalties, including excessive fines. They think they can find people into submission. It’s not going to work. I’m going to continue to speak out to stand up to this most corrupt of former presidents, regardless of what they do.
Brian Beutler: So I mentioned you’re running for Senate. Have you and your campaign thought at all about what happens if you get elected and then your new Senate GOP colleagues like Tommy Tuberville or Ted Cruz or whoever decide they’re going to try to make you the same kind of scapegoat that House Republicans are trying to turn you into now in the same kind of petty ways.
Adam Schiff: Well, look, my view is in the Senate, I can be even more effective in defending our democracy and in championing issues that are important to Californians, like an economy that works for everyone dealing with the opioid crisis, bringing down the cost of housing. That’s what I’m focused on. But if necessary, I will be defending our democracy from the Senate, and I’ll take on the Ted Cruz’s and the Josh Hawley and the other extreme MAGA members of the Senate. But the predominant focus for me is trying to make sure that I meet the needs of all Californians.
Brian Beutler: Do you think these guys are conscious of the kind of retribution game they’re playing with? Do they think to themselves, man, this Schiff guy really did some lasting damage with the impeachment inquiry in the trial. He got a bunch of Republicans to admit that we did something bad. So now we’ve got to hurt him. So the next time around, Democrats will think twice. Or is it more lizard brain like Donald Trump is mad at Adam Schiff calls him Shifty Schiff so now we have to go after him, too.
Adam Schiff: You know, I think it’s a mixture of those motivations they’re going after made to appease Trump to distract from his indictment and his legal troubles. But, you know, they’re also upset, angry, frustrated that I was able to make the case to hold him accountable and that I warned of what would happen if they didn’t convict him in the Senate. And sadly, all that came to pass and then some. So this is both trying to gratify Trump, distract from his troubles, but also go after someone, try to diminish someone, try to smear someone they view as singularly effective. And, you know, I got to say, that’s very flattering on the one hand, on the other, to see them abuse the resources of the House this way when we have serious challenges the country is facing. Not to mention just the sheer hypocrisy. Here they are the authors of The Big Lie about our election attacking you for telling the truth. It just shows you what kind of an Alice in Wonderland world we’re living in right now.
Brian Beutler: I want to try to tie back to this eye for an eye politics in the GOP at the end. But let’s talk about the indictment and arraignment first. How many classified documents do you have in your country club bathroom right now?
Adam Schiff: [laughs] Well, zero. And I tell you, when I was chairing the Intel committee, when I was the ranking member, when I was just a plain member of the Intel committee, I was so very careful not to take anything out of the skiff. And the idea that that Donald Trump would bring hundreds of these highly classified documents and keep them in his bathroom on the stage in one of the ballrooms accessible to God knows who came in and out of that club. And the sources of intelligence, human and technical, that may have been compromised. It’s unthinkable. And then you, of course, add to it the choking hypocrisy of this former president who is attacking Hillary Clinton and accusing her of being reckless with our classified information. And here he is keeping all these boxes of documents in his bathroom. I mean, it really never ceases to amaze you. You can’t make this stuff up. But this is a guy who has always felt he was above the law, never more so than when he became president. And as the evidence set out in the indictment makes clear, he feels entitled to do whatever he wants. The law applies to others. It applies to losers and suckers. It doesn’t apply to Donald Trump. That’s his view.
Brian Beutler: So I’ve heard you discuss the strength of Jack Smith’s first indictment, other programs. I’m curious what you think about some of the questions it raises or leaves unanswered. So such as has the government reclaimed all of this material? Was any of it reproduced? And can there be a real damage assessment if we don’t know the answers to those questions?
Adam Schiff: You know what when I was on Intel. We had these kind of issues come up, not in this context, but where you had sources of information that might be compromised. You had a bad insider in the intelligence community. And the IC, the Intelligence Committee, would do an assessment. What do we know about who had access? What do we not know? And and given that we don’t know everything, what steps do we need to take to mitigate any further risks? This is the analysis the intel community has been doing, undoubtedly about all these documents. You’re right. There are a lot of unanswered questions that may be answered during the trial or may. We may never know. And that is, for example, there’s a question about those documents that he was waving around in Bedminster. Do we know what those were? Where were those among the ones that were found? And if they weren’t found, then where are they? And why did he have all these documents to begin with? So we’ll get some of the answers, I think, during the trial. But some of those questions we may never fully know. Just, you know, whether we we know the full universe of documents or whether there are others that are floating around out there destroyed or in the wrong hands.
Brian Beutler: So I’m glad you mentioned Bedminster, because the indictment makes clear that at least some of this criminal activity took place at Trump’s New Jersey golf club. And to me, it raises questions like during the investigation phase, why did the FBI not raid Bedminster and why not consider charging Trump there in a jurisdiction where there’s like a 0% chance of drawing Aileen Cannon as the trial court judge?
Adam Schiff: Well, I think the special counsel is really playing everything very straight, very by the book. You know, it’s their reaction. This case will be scrutinized in question. So, you know, I do think that the gravamen of the offense is in Florida. That’s where most of the documents were found. And, yes, he could have made a different kind of charging decision to have a different venue. But I think he’s doing it very conservatively, and I think that’s what he should do. It was certainly, I think, bad luck of the draw for the Justice Department to draw a judge who has the record earlier in this investigation of very unprecedented rulings that were helpful to Donald Trump, later reversed on appeal. So that’s got to be concerning. But nonetheless, I think Jack Smith is playing it very straight, and that’s as it should be.
Brian Beutler: Does that extend to this? You know, during the arraignment yesterday, the government came prepared to let Trump walk free pending trial with no conditions, no bail, no communications restrictions or anything like that. Those were imposed by the magistrate judge. Do you think that was you know, maybe we’re seeing Merrick Garland’s hand at play in trying to make it seem like this is the the lightest touch prosecution possible to avoid some appearance of of partisanship. And why does Trump get to walk out without bail where anyone else who did took this many documents and showed him to other people would probably be held awaiting trial?
Adam Schiff: Well, the standard for bail is whether the person is a danger to the community, whether they’re a flight risk. I don’t think Donald Trump is a flight risk. I don’t think he’s going to show up in Moscow. But you never know with that guy [laughter] and seek Putin’s asylum. But so, you know, I think judged on the criteria of whether he’s a continuing danger to the community, there is, of course, the risk that there are the documents that he has still withheld that he could share with parties unknown. But I think it’s probably the right judgment they are trying. To make this process, as you know, as least incendiary as possible in the country’s interest. And I think it is in the country’s interest not to inflame tensions any more than they’re already inflamed. What concerns me the most, frankly, is, you know, this relentless assault on the Justice Department, on the FBI, by not just Trump, but all the other Republican candidates who seem to want to have it both ways. They’re either attacking Trump over what he did and attacking the Justice Department or just defending Trump and attacking the Justice Department. But they’re attacking the Justice Department. They’re trying to breed a lack of confidence in our justice system that’s going to have long term damage. It means that people aren’t going to trust the FBI. They’re not going to report crimes. Witnesses won’t come forward. Juries are going to be suspicious. You know, in other cases, completely unrelated to Donald Trump. And this is by the party that was supposed to be a party of law and order. They’ve become a party of lawlessness and disorder. But it will do lasting damage.
Brian Beutler: Do you worry on that note, that the way Trump conducts himself and the way Republicans defend him attacking the Justice Department and the judge and the special counsel makes it impossible in a practical sense to have a fair trial for for Donald Trump, for the prosecution, that that the ability to draw a single juror who’s internalized that and is committed to just voting to acquit under any circumstances is a pretty easy bar for the defense to clear.
Adam Schiff: You know, I was a prosecutor for almost six years, federal prosecutor. And in my experience, juries take their civic responsibility very seriously. They will weigh the evidence. They will set aside things they’re not supposed to consider. And I think they’ll do their jobs. Obviously, jury selection is going to be really important. Both the prosecution and the defense are going to have to try to pick people who are unbiased. At least the prosecution is going to try. I guess the defense will try to pick people who are biased. But I have confidence in the system. It will be tested like never before. But I’ll tell you, reading the indictment, Jack Smith had no choice but to bring these charges. The evidence outlined in the indictment, if these allegations are correct, is so powerful that to fail to charge Donald Trump would mean that we don’t have a system where the rule of law applies equally to everyone. It would mean we have a completely different justice system for people in power positions or privilege like Donald Trump. So these charges had to be brought. It’ll be a difficult case to try, but nonetheless not an impossible case to try. And there was simply no alternative.
Brian Beutler: I’m glad you mentioned that the the sort of strength of the indictment itself. And because this ties back to the reason why I mentioned Merrick Garland a few minutes ago, you’ve expressed frustrations with him specifically related to the pace of the January 6th investigation. And I’m wondering if you think that this indictment vindicates him in any way or makes you feel better about the course of that separate investigation? Or do you worry that this conduct was just too brazen, the case was sort of too open and shut and that they had no choice but to bring this one? But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re moving with with all deliberate speed on the, on the other investigation.
Adam Schiff: I have been very critical of the Justice Department taking so long on the January 6th investigation. That’s really not a criticism directed at Jack’s methods or criticism of the department before he came to be appointed, because it seems like for an entire year, the Justice Department was almost singularly focused on the foot soldiers. Those that broke into the Capitol assaulted police that day and really didn’t begin in earnest the investigation of the role of the higher ups, those that incited the attack, those that were like the former president on the phone with the secretary of state in Georgia, seeking to defraud people in Georgia of their votes. I tell you, I think anyone else on the phone in a recorded conversation saying what Donald Trump did, basically telling the Secretary of State all these false allegations of fraud that his own Justice Department had told him were B.S. and then saying, come on. You know, how hard can it be? I’m just looking for 11,780 votes, fellas, or words to that effect. Anyone else who was in that conversation would already be under indictment. So they’ve been very slow on the most serious charges. And, you know, it certainly is possible that they feel with the Mar-a-Lago charges, they have demonstrated their willingness to take on a former president. But the question is, is there that willingness when it comes to the most serious charges involving the first ever effort in our history to interfere with a peaceful transfer of power? [music plays]
Brian Beutler: To me, one of the ancillary benefits of the current indictment is, is we get to watch Republicans traffic in these absurdities. Right. Like pretend to believe that storing war contingency plans in a country club bathroom is perfectly fine. At the same time, Axios reported last week that the DNC has urged at least some of your colleagues sort of not to talk about this stuff on air. Politico reporting that Biden has ordered the DNC and his campaign to sort of stand down from talking about this as well. Can you help me understand that impulse? I get why Biden himself as head of the branch that prosecutes suspected criminals has to be careful not to thumb the scale. But for every other Democrat, how could this set of facts not be advantageous in just about any winnable district?
Adam Schiff: Well, I think they’re going to have to address this in the DNC. I think members of the Democratic Party like myself are going to have to speak out about this. This was an historic abuse of of power during the presidency, after the presidency that has put our national security at risk. You know, we can’t avoid the issue when it is so disqualifying of Donald Trump or it should be for any office. You know, at the same time, as you say, I understand why the president himself doesn’t want to talk about it. Donald Trump is accusing him of essentially dictating into Merrick Garland of the special counsel to indict his political opponent. That’s, of course, nonsense. But the president wants to avoid any appearance of this involvement in the actual case. I think that makes sense. But at a certain point, you know, he will and the party will need to speak out about this. But the president will choose both the time, place the manner in which he discusses someone who may be their nominee and his reckless disregard of the law and our national security.
Brian Beutler: Has has your thinking on this changed since the early Trump days? I think back to a New York Times opinion piece that you wrote, I think it was in 2018 about the unlikelihood of an impeachment if Democrats took over the House. And I read it at the time to suggest that there were misgivings within the party about the political wisdom of impeaching Donald Trump. But then, of course, you went on to lead the first Trump impeachment. Did that represent a shift in your own thinking about how important it is to air these kinds of controversies out?
Adam Schiff: No, it reflected the development of the evidence. When I wrote the op ed in The New York Times, it was to say, basically, let’s let Mueller finish his work before we make a decision about what repercussion is necessary, let the investigation run its course. During the course of that investigation, we had a whistleblower report that Donald Trump was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine in order to extort that country into helping him cheat in the election campaign. To me, that was so much more powerful than anything we had seen before in terms of direct evidence of his abuse of office and that we had no choice but to move forward with impeachment. And I think that was absolutely the right decision. So for me, it was a question of waiting until the evidence warranted that step. Now, we knew senators were unlikely to convict that is, that we wouldn’t get the two thirds needed to convict. But we did need to warn the country and we did need to discharge our constitutional duty, even if Republican senators, apart from Mitt Romney, were unwilling to do theirs. And sadly, we warned and it didn’t require any great pressions during that trial that if Trump was not held accountable, he would go on to commit even worse abuses of office. He will try to cheat in even worse ways in the next election, and he did it ultimately leading to an insurrection. And, you know, getting back to what you originally asked me about, this is what really I think drives the MAGA crowd in the house and outside the house to want to censure me because I warned about exactly what Donald Trump represented. And and they don’t want to confront that. And they’re still making excuses for him. And you’re right. It it forces them to twist themselves into a pretzel trying to defend keeping, you know, secret documents in your bathroom. But, you know, sadly, we have learned the wisdom of something Robert Caro once said, the historian. He said power doesn’t corrupt as much as it reveals. It doesn’t always reveal us for our best, but it says a lot about who we are. And power has revealed a lot about Republicans I serve in Congress and just what they were willing to do to try to keep power. And that’s just about anything. And that has put our our country and its democracy on a razor’s edge.
Brian Beutler: Do you suspect that your colleagues in the House. Their collective appetite for basically making politics around Donald Trump’s conduct, his corrupt conduct and thinking specifically has increased since the election in 2018. Because I do remember back then your colleague Jamie Raskin wanted to pursue the emoluments case as a possible impeachable offense. And there were others who thought that when you unearthed the information about the classified server where Donald Trump was storing conversations with other foreign leaders, not just Vladimir Zelensky, there was some appetite to to try to get at that stuff. But ultimately, I think it went unpursued. Is that changing or do you think the Democratic Party and its leadership have a greater appetite now to treat this kind of abuse of power as sort of a central appeal to voters about why the other party can’t be trusted with it?
Adam Schiff: You know, I certainly think that there is a willingness among Democrats in Congress to call out the president’s unlawful, unethical conduct and to make it an issue in the campaign to to demonstrate what damage he’s doing to our country, to our democracy. On the other side of the aisle, what we’ve seen, you know, initially, early on in the Trump administration, you had some voices of protest in the GOP. But one thing that Trump did quite successfully is he kneecapped anybody who stepped an inch out of line. And over time, they just all fell in line with very few exceptions. Liz Cheney was an exception. Adam Kinzinger was an exception. They and they paid a price. They were run out of Congress by these MAGA forces. Now, there’s there’s little or no restraint left in the GOP. Most of them are totally on this MAGA bandwagon. Privately, though, apart from these crazy MAGA people like the one that’s brought this resolution, apart from them, the Republicans understand how much damage he’s done to the country. You know, they’re not foolish people. They know exactly what Donald Trump represents. And this to me is what’s so damning, because it’s calculated they’re either hiding or they’re going along with it because they think it’s necessary to keep their jobs in Congress. And, you know, I would have thought more highly of my colleagues that their oath meant more to them than that. But this is a test of, you know, their their own constitution, as well as our nation’s constitution. And, you know, sadly, they are being found wanting in so many ways. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: You mentioned that you’re running for Senate because you think that you could better defend U.S. democracy from there. Do you think that your potentially future Senate colleagues are pursuing these kinds of unresolved scandals with enough vigor right now?
Adam Schiff: Well, you know, it’s hard for me to get a sense of what they were able to do given the closeness of the majority in the Senate. I certainly think that, for example, some of the Supreme Court abuses that have been revealed need to be investigated. If not investigated by the Judicial Council, these conflicts of interest. Then they need to be investigated by the Congress and they should be investigated by the Senate. But I also think that part of why our democracy is at risk is that the economy is not working for millions of people. And this is a central focus of mine in the House. It will be in the Senate. People can’t afford a place to live. Many can’t afford health care. They can’t afford to put food on the table. And it leaves people vulnerable to a demagogue who comes along and promises that they alone can fix things. So I’m going to be aggressive in going after these economic disparities and helping working families become part of the middle class and upper middle class families stay in the middle class. And to me, this is key not only to the nation’s prosperity, but it’s also key to our democracy and protecting our democracy, and that is fighting for an economy that works for everyone. And that’s what I plan to do in the Senate.
Brian Beutler: Congressman Adam Schiff, thanks again for spending so much of your time with us. We really appreciate it.
Adam Schiff: Great to be with you. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: Here’s where I want to bring this conversation full circle to the censure resolution against Adam Schiff and this just generally retributive authoritarian impulse that’s taken over the GOP. I don’t know if there’s any way to chasten them about this aspect of their politics, but I do think it’d help if more Democrats could talk about them with the facility and the kind of ethical clarity that Congressman Schiff does. I think Republicans have come to realize that, for instance, their fiscal priorities are a big political liability for them. And so they’ve scaled back some of those ambitions. They’ve stopped talking about them. They’ve told bigger and bigger lies about what they’d like to do with the social safety net if they ever gain enough power. And that makes me think that if they started losing elections because of their spitefulness, their kind of faithless behavior, this embrace of corruption. And they lost because Democrats decided to engage those fights with a bit more vigor. They might similarly find it in their interest to rediscover rules of fair play. And we’d have a much healthier civic life if they did. [music plays] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.