The Russian probe has dominated the headlines and all eyes will be on Capitol Hill when former FBI head James Comey testifies in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee this Thursday.
One person who will be following the hearing closely is California lawmaker Adam Schiff, who is the ranking member of the House Intelligence committee and the Democratic Congressman from the 28th U.S. Congressional District which includes Burbank, Glendale and West Hollywood.
The House Intelligence committee has launched its own investigation into alleged Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election, and potential Russian ties to the Trump campaign. The House committee has issued a number of subpoenas in recent weeks, including one for President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Larry Mantle spoke with Congressman Schiff on the Comey hearing, and his committee’s own investigation into the matter.
Let’s start first with your response to what we’ve been hearing from the Senatorial Committee that’s the counterpart to yours in the House: NSA Director Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said they didn’t perceive themselves as being pressured by the president on the Russia investigations but wouldn’t detail those conversations.
My response is, it’s not really the question or the pressure but rather the question is did the president make this request? Did he attempt to interview in any way? Whether they gave in or felt they were being directed or felt they could resist is a separate matter. So we need to get these answers and I think these answers ought to be given in open public session. I have talked to Director Rogers after his testimony and underscored my view that these questions need to be answered. So, hopefully that will be forthcoming. I think to the degree that the White House may wish to claim executive privilege ... I think it’s been waived and waived in part by these witnesses testifying in part to that very issue of whether they were pressured by the president.
So you think they’ve opened that door. If you were to have members of a presidential administration commenting on private conversations with the president, would that not in some way be disruptive to an administration? How do you pick and choose when a member of an administration talks about private communication and not?
It’s one thing if you’re talking about conversations that deal with policy matters. The president is debating whether to renegotiate a trade agreement or not to or to fulfill something he pledged to do. That’s one thing — it’s another if the discussion involves potential illegality. In those contexts, the executive privilege is always given way and it ought to hear if there were inappropriate conversations that were evidence of a potential attempt to obstruct or interfere in the FBI investigation in any way. That should not be subject to any claim of privilege.
There are supporters of the president who are already running online ads that attack the credibility and the record of James Comey making this testimony. What do you think the impact of that effort to impeach his testimony might mean?
It’s hard to see how it’s going to be successful because it looks so completely self-serving. A lot of people have questions about the judgement James Comey exercised. I was one of them, during the course of the Clinton investigation and his decision to violate Department of Justice policy. But, nobody thinks he’s a liar. No one thinks he’s going to make up conversations with the president that didn’t take place. And if they pick a fight between his credibility and that of the president about what took place in those meetings, they’ll lose that fight. I have to sense that because these actions are taking place and these organizations are mobilizing, they realize that the director is very likely to contradict the president.
Where is the line in your mind between the president talking with the former director about the Russia investigation and engaging in obstruction of justice?
Well, if the president intervened with these directors like Rogers and Coats, if he asked the [former] FBI director also to drop the part of his investigation and then fired him because the director wouldn’t, that crosses a very definite line for me. It’s certainly inappropriate, unethical. Whether it goes beyond that, whether it rises to the level of removal from office, not only does it have to meet sort of a legal test, whether it constitutes obstruction of justice but also very practical test. And that is, would the GOP, which is the majority party in Congress, be able to go back home and make the case to their own constituents that this was not simply an effort to nullify an election by other means, that in fact the president’s conduct was so disqualifying it justified removal from office. That’s a pretty high bar and the standard for impeachment is a pretty high bar, but I think that’s the very practical test and it’s a very different test than what you can prosecute in a criminal case.
We had an exchange in the Senate testimony where Mr. Rod Rosenstein was being pushed by Senator Harris to answer whether he would be willing to sign a letter that he would not fire Robert Mueller at any point and he declined to answer that question. Are you confident that the special counsel to the Russia investigation, Mr. Mueller, is fully independent and that he’ll be able to complete the investigation with the resources necessary?
I am confident of that and I’ve talked to Rod Rosenstein and I don’t think there’s any way he’s going to interfere in Mr. Mueller’s work. If Mr. Mueller says he needs a certain amount of resources or more resources, I don’t think there’s any way he’s going to refuse that request. He knows we’re going to be overseeing all of this. We’re going to make sure that Mr. Mueller gets everything he needs. We have a lot of questions we want answered from Mr. Rosenstein too, which he has deferred right now to Mr. Mueller and this is a slightly differently issue and problem and that is Mr. Mueller will have to look into whether Mr. Rosenstein acted appropriately in drafting that memo to the the president. The president, at least initially, used as a pretext for the firing of James Comey. Ultimately, it will be reported to Rod Rosenstein who is the subject of it, and so that conflict will have to be worked out.
How has your life changed? Here you are in this place where you’re on cable news almost every day, you’ve become a leading face of the Democratic Party.
It certainly has changed, in a lot of ways certainly from the election of this president. Most fundamentally, I’ve never had the concern I do today about the president of the United States, and obviously I’ve been around long enough to serve under both Democrats and Republicans, where I feel the president’s lack of appreciation for the separation of powers, the necessity of a free press has really shaken the republic. I feel a deep obligation, given the position I have, the responsibility I have, to stand as a bulwark in support of our system and democracy.
But your personal life must be very different even than it was a year ago.
Absolutely. I can’t walk down the street without getting a lot of feedback about the work I’m doing. Most of it, thankfully, very positive, some of it not so much. That is definitely a new phenomena. I have experienced that to some degree in my district for many years but now I get that wherever I go in the country and that is something quite different.