Washington (AFP) – Three decades ago, Adam Schiff — the Democrat leading the impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump — prosecuted the first FBI agent ever jailed for spying for Moscow.
The agent was lured into a sexual relationship with a Russian woman, giving the Soviets leverage to extract sensitive US information from him.
Now Schiff wants to know if Ukraine or others could have leverage over Trump, after he sought their help to damage 2020 political rival Joe Biden and then tried to hide the fact.
The late-1980s case, one of the first in Schiff’s early post Harvard Law School-career as a federal prosecutor, shaped his view of security threats that guides him today as head of the House Intelligence Committee.
Last week, after a White House call record showed Trump asking Ukraine’s president to provide dirt on Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named the soft-spoken Schiff and his committee to lead the probe that could ultimately lead to Trump’s removal from office.
“I intend to do a thorough investigation,” Schiff said on ABC television on Sunday.
“What we have seen already is damning, because what we have seen in that call record is a president of the United States use the full weight of his office… to try to coerce that leader to manufacture dirt on his opponent and interfere in our election.”
“It’s hard to imagine a series of facts more damning than that,” he said.
– ‘How a mafia boss talks’ –
In appearance, few would choose Schiff, 59, as the Democrats’ attack dog to take down a Republican leader who will fight back tooth and nail to protect his presidency.
A California congressman representing the Hollywood-Burbank entertainment industry hub, he appears more like a vicar or a primary school principal. He never raises his voice, and rarely strays into hyperbole.
That made his quietly delivered outrage at the news of Trump’s Ukraine dealings last week even more impactful.
Trump’s July demand for a “favor” from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky reflects “a classic mafia-type shakedown of a foreign leader,” Schiff said.
“This is how a mafia boss talks: ‘What have you done for us?’”
Trump’s approach to Schiff is the polar opposite. Last year, he crudely dubbed the Democrat “little Adam Schitt,” and in recent days has accused Schiff of “illegally” making false statements about the president.
“I want Schiff questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason,” he said in a tweet on Sunday.
– ‘Logical, linear’ –
As mild-mannered as he appears, Schiff has proven to be a focused, determined investigator, and tough as a bulldog. He’s a fit cyclist who at 50 completed a triathlon.
Pelosi called him “logical, linear, measured but forceful.”
His determination reflects his experience in the early FBI prosecution.
“I learned a lot about Russian tradecraft: how the Russians operate, who they target, the vulnerabilities they look for,” he recounted earlier this year to Zach Dorfman of the Aspen Institute Cyber and Technology program.
He focuses, however, beyond Russian election meddling to what he sees as the crux security risk: does a foreign government have leverage over a US official?
“Many Americans have expressed deep concerns that foreign powers — especially Russia — cultivated or possessed financial leverage or influence over President Trump or his associates,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in April.
“It is up to Congress to assure that the president and his associates work for the American people and not for some undisclosed personal or foreign interests.”