Adam Schiff
Congreessman Adam Schiff, Democrat from California, is seen outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, October 20, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

When Adam Schiff first came to Congress in 2001, he fashioned himself a Democrat eager to reach across the aisle to get things done. He formed workable, even collegial, relationships with his Republican colleagues. On Sundays, Schiff and California Republican Devin Nunes would text about Raiders games.

During the Obama years, that was hard enough. Republicans were plainly more committed to obstructing the president’s agenda than to solving the country’s problems. After Donald Trump assumed office, however, any attempt at bipartisanship was painfully and obviously futile. Most GOP members cared only about protecting Trump—and, by extension, themselves—from the former president’s abuses of power, no matter how much damage they were inflicting on American democracy in the process.

As the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, the California representative was tasked with investigating Trump and his inner circle for possible collusion with Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign and with attempts to thwart the Russia probe once they came to power. In turn, he became a frequent target of Trump’s derision.  “Little pencil-neck” or “Shifty Schiff” were just a few of the nicknames the real-estate-mogul-turned politician gave him.

Nunes, meanwhile, became Schiff’s main foil during the Russia investigation, claiming to have top-secret documentation confirming Trump’s bizarre theory that the Obama administration had wiretapped his campaign in a 2017 episode known as the “midnight run.” Suffice it to say, Schiff and Nunes no longer text about the Raiders (and not just because the team has since moved to Las Vegas).

Now, Schiff has taken on a time-honored Washington tradition: He wrote a book about his time in the spotlight. Midnight in Washington provides readers with Schiff’s take on the past five years as someone who lived it up close, and who was at the center of major investigations, from the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in our democracy and the first impeachment of Trump to the January 6 Capitol insurrection.

I recently spoke with Schiff about how the GOP has eroded our democratic institutions, his conclusion that the behavior of his Republican colleagues—who know the truth and choose not to care—is pushing our democracy to the brink, and what can be done to save the country.

This conversation has been edited and shortened for clarity.

GB: You write about how Republicans refuse to acknowledge how far Trump was willing to go to achieve and maintain power. They are not bothered by the fact that he was ready to subvert our democracy. How do you deal with the idea that your colleagues refuse to learn their lesson each time he goes one step further?  

AS: You can draw that straight line from one abuse to the next to the next. And they’re just getting more and more serious all the time. As we speak, Republicans are using the big lie around the country to strip elections officials of their duties and get them over to partisans in the hope and expectation that if they lose the next election, this time, they’ll succeed in overturning it. This is how democracies come to an end. It’s not always by violent means. Often, it’s by using the instruments of democracy against itself. I think making that case—making that record clear and public and doing so persistently—is our best defense to expose the misconduct that’s leading our country away from its cherished legacy as a democracy.

GB: You write about how Trump did not start this Republican turn toward autocracy. Specifically, you cite the Benghazi episode as a precursor. Where do you think the GOP behavior is leading the country?

 AS: We are moving, as a nation, in an anti-democratic direction. There was a moment after the insurrection where the Republican Party leadership thought about casting Donald Trump aside, but they had a complete failure of courage and will. Now, they’ve decided to continue proceeding with him along this destructive path. We are not out of the woods, by any means. We are still heading in the wrong direction. For folks who thought these things could never happen in America, well, now we have seen that they can and they have happened. There’s nothing inevitable and inexorable about democracy. It requires every generation to defend it. The Republican Party has become an autocratic culture around the former president. They are celebrating Viktor Orbán, the wannabe dictator in Hungary, as their model. They’re holding political conventions in Budapest. They’re making no secret about it. When people tell you they want to turn the country into an autocracy, we need to listen. And we need to act.

GB: How have the last four years affected your thinking on bipartisanship, conceptually?

AS: I came from a very nonpartisan background. I still don’t view myself as a partisan. I view myself as strongly anti-Trump and strongly pro-democracy. I think the Republican Party has left being a party of ideas and ideology, and just become utterly, slavishly devoted to the former president.

[There are] still things to get done in Congress on a bipartisan basis. We have to. I had to come to grips with the fact that most Republican members on the Intel Committee voted to overturn the election. I can’t not work with them, because the work of the committee has to get done. Every year, including this one, we’ve passed our annual Intelligence Authorization Act on a bipartisan basis. That work is too important to fail because we can’t work together. But when it comes to the biggest ticket items—the preservation of our system of government as a democracy—there is no accommodation. As long as they’re an autocratic cult of the former president, they’re just going to have to be beaten at the polls. Because there’s just no accommodating the effort to tear down the institutions of our democracy.

GB: You write extensively in the book about the Senate Select Committee on Watergate. Today, Watergate seems kind of quaint. How do you compare the current midnight in Washington to past midnights in Washington?

AS: If it’s midnight in Washington now, it was probably 9 p.m. during Watergate. I think we’re far beyond the danger that Richard Nixon posed. There were real limits within which Richard Nixon was willing to operate. And there were real limits to what the Republican Party of that day would tolerate. People like Howard Baker called on the president to step down. We are seeing some of that same courage in Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. But it is not yet by any means a majority of the Republican Party. So this, to me, is a much darker time than Watergate.

Part of the reason, apart from the very different nature of today’s GOP, is the media environment. Fox News and Newsmax and OAN give Donald Trump supporters a completely alternate world to live in—where up is down and black is white and facts don’t matter. You just make up your own truth. It’s hard for democracy to continue when there’s no shared experience anymore.

GB: On January 6, you said, “This election will not be overturned, but what about the next? Or the one after that?” Where’s your temperature at on the 2022 elections?

AS: I think they’re going to be very close. I’m more optimistic than many. The historic trend of presidents in the first term losing seats of their party in the midterms presupposes a different trend that didn’t happen: When the president is swept into office, he brings into office a great many new House members representing districts that demographically belong to the other party. That didn’t happen in the 2020 election. Joe Biden didn’t have coattails. In fact, Democrats lost seats in the House. So we’ve already had our correction, which I think means that whoever wins the upcoming midterm isn’t going to win it by very much. Either we’re going to hold it by very little, or we’re going to lose it by very little.

GB: When you look at your Republican colleagues, how do you explain what they allowed to happen in service to Donald Trump?

AS: Steve Scalise couldn’t bring himself to admit the election wasn’t stolen. I can’t imagine that when Steve Scalise decided to run for Congress one day, he did so because he thought, I want to be in a position where I can help carry a big lie about elections to undermine our democracy. But that’s where he is. How does he get there? The answer is, he got there like so many others in his party, one day at a time, one sacrifice of integrity at a time, to attain a position of leadership—and out of ambition.

If you look at the tale of two members, Elise Stefanik and Liz Cheney, you can see all you need to know about where we are. You had a person of conviction and principle in Liz Cheney saying, I will not carry a big lie to undermine our democracy, even if it will cost me my position in Republican leadership. And you have Elise Stefanik say, If Cheney won’t carry the big lie, I am more than happy to volunteer. That’s the story of today’s GOP under Trump and [Kevin] McCarthy.

GB: After the domestic challenges of the last four years, do you approach your job on the Intelligence Committee any differently?

AS: Happily, in the Intel Committee itself, we can focus on the continuing threat that’s posed by China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. We’ve been doing a lot of work to refocus the intelligence community on cleaning up from the mess that the last administration made. The danger, in terms of foreign intervention, is still present. Russians are still meddling with us.

But as you point out, the graver threat right now comes from within. It comes from white nationalists and other domestic terrorists who are determined to subvert our democracy and put an autocrat in power. And it comes from those in Congress who are willing to make common cause with them—so long as they’ll just vote for the GOP. That’s a very different kind of challenge than we’ve ever faced. It’s a phenomenon I recognized very early in the Trump presidency, when I reached the terrible conclusion, which now seems so self-evident, that the paramount threat to our democracy no longer came from outside the country but from within.

Gabby Birenbaum

Gabby Birenbaum is digital editor at the Washington Monthly.