Adam Schiff, Trump’s Chief Antagonist, Ponders Life After Trump
As House Democrats’ top presidential investigator, Representative Adam B. Schiff saw his national profile skyrocket in opposition to President Trump, a man he charged with high crimes and misdemeanors. He does not intend to let it fall when Mr. Trump leaves the White House.
With a Democratic administration poised to take charge in Washington, Mr. Schiff, the California Democrat who leads the House Intelligence Committee, is quietly and methodically maneuvering for a second act. As other Democrats step forward this week for a slate of leadership posts under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mr. Schiff is biding his time but ruling out few possibilities, including a run for Senate, a Biden administration post or an eventual bid for the speakership or another top House leadership post.
There is perhaps no better sign of Mr. Schiff’s ambition than the amount of campaign cash he raised this election cycle for himself and Democrats up and down the ballot: $41 million. It is an unusually high sum for a lawmaker in his position that reflects the cachet he accrued among liberals as he led the drive to impeach Mr. Trump and then served as his lead prosecutor in his trial on the Senate floor.
Among House Democrats, only Ms. Pelosi and Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, the chairwoman of their campaign arm, raised more, putting Mr. Schiff ahead of the pack of the next generation of Democratic leaders emerging in the House. (By comparison, the speaker dwarfed any other fund-raiser, bringing in more than $225 million for Democrats in the last two years.)
In politics, where campaign funds are a conduit to influence and loyalty as well as a signal of political aspiration, the Los Angeles-area congressman has spread it liberally: $7 million went to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign, roughly $4 million to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, almost $5 million directly to Democrats running in swing districts and $3 million to Senate candidates, according to his campaign. Mr. Schiff kept the other $22 million for himself and his political action committee, money that could be spent on his own future political ambitions.
“My philosophy up to this point, which has suited me well, has been to focus on doing my current job as best I can and let the future take care of itself,” he said in an interview on Monday. “What all of us can do right now, whatever anyone’s ambition may be, is bring our caucus together and focus on maximizing the talents that everyone brings to the job.”
That is no small task at the moment, after Democrats sustained painful and unexpected losses on Election Day that will substantially narrow their majority next term and have unleashed a wave of recriminations. And Mr. Schiff, 60, is facing a daunting test of his own, of whether he can parlay national security expertise, investigative prowess and a knack for oratory into continued relevance on the national stage after Mr. Trump exits and Republicans look for revenge.
For now, Mr. Schiff’s chances of a top intelligence position in the Biden administration appear remote, his allies concede, in large part because of his success as Mr. Trump’s leading antagonist. Mr. Schiff remains radioactive among Republicans who viewed his pursuit of Mr. Trump as craven and partisan, and he would therefore be unlikely to get through the Senate confirmation process.
The Californian has made little secret of his interest in moving across the Capitol to the Senate, but Democrats in Washington believe he may be boxed in on that front for the moment, as well. Though the ascension of Senator Kamala Harris of California to the vice presidency will create a vacancy in January, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has left party officials in his state with the distinct impression that he wants to appoint a historic “first” to replace her, most likely a Latino.
That could change if Mr. Newsom appoints a short-term placeholder instead, or if the state’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, 87, were to retire. Mr. Schiff has positioned himself to jump into a statewide race in the nation’s most populous state, with his hefty campaign war chest and highly recognizable name.
As the extremes of his party battle to determine what went wrong with voter turnout programs, digital data-mining and the party’s ideological tilt, Mr. Schiff’s view of the election outcome is pretty straightforward. The 2020 contest, he argued, was a referendum on Mr. Trump, delivered by a historically polarized country. Mr. Biden won the referendum, but Democrats lost House seats they picked up in 2018 where Mr. Trump remained popular.
In the election’s wake, he argued that Democrats should follow Mr. Biden’s lead and redouble their focus on the economy, prioritizing job creation, cutting health care costs and putting forward coherent answers to the forces of globalization and automation that have helped income inequality explode and left millions jobless or underemployed.
“We are the party of working families, but not all working families recognize that,” he said. “That’s the first challenge.”
The second, he said, was addressing the dangerous divergence of Americans’ information streams, which Mr. Schiff argued were reinforcing divisions that prevent the kind of consensus necessary to address the country’s most pressing problems.
Mr. Schiff, a member of the moderate New Democrats despite his fiery leadership in the Trump resistance, praised both extremes of the Democratic Caucus. He called Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken progressive whose democratic socialist views have been weaponized by the right, “enormously talented,” suggesting that Democrats had benefited from her work motivating younger voters. He said more moderate members like Representatives Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia had “unlocked the key to winning in really difficult parts of the country.”
“We are a big enough party to not only accommodate all of them, but to draw on their talents and their experience,” he said.
Mr. Schiff has emerged as one of Ms. Pelosi’s closest and most trusted confidants. Both are Californians who cut their teeth on the intelligence committee and served as appropriators.
He is not the only potential dark horse candidate for a top post-Pelosi leadership post. Another prominent Los Angeles-area House member, Representative Karen Bass, is said to harbor similar ambitions if she is not offered a position by Mr. Biden.
But as a white man in an increasingly diverse caucus, Mr. Schiff could run into challenges if he tries to ascend the House leadership ranks, at least in the race for the top slot. Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus whom many in the party view as the favorite to succeed Ms. Pelosi, would be the first Black speaker or leader of either major party. (Were he to run and win, Mr. Schiff would be the first Jewish speaker.)
For now, Mr. Schiff appears to have resigned himself to doing that work from his perch on the Intelligence Committee, where he will play a role in the unglamorous and nonpublic work of rebuilding an intelligence community hollowed out by Mr. Trump.
As incoming Democrats must decide whether to pursue retroactive Justice Department investigations into Mr. Trump, his family and his administration, Mr. Schiff made clear the same questions would be before Congress.
“All of us in Congress will need to balance the need for accountability with the goals of the new administration,” Mr. Schiff said, “and the necessity of healing and bringing the country together.”
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