Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) discusses the national security implications of Russia's alleged election interference with Andrea Mitchell at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Full transcript, via CFR:
MITCHELL: Well, welcome, everyone. Thank you all so much for turning out.
I know you’re turning out for Congressman Adam Schiff. So it is my great pleasure to introduce the congressman, who is currently serving in his ninth term, representing the 28th district in California. He, of course, is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Throughout his tenure in Congress, the congressman has focused on the economy, on national security, education, safety and health issues. Previously he served in California’s 21st district in the state legislature. He chaired the Judiciary Committee there and the Select Committee on Juvenile Justice, and the Joint Committee on the Arts. We just learned that we shared an adolescent involvement in music. So he’s also a former teenage musician, I guess I could say. (Laughter.)
Before serving in the legislature there, the congressman served with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in L.A. for six years, so he has six years as a federal prosecutor. He’s a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School. He and his wife Eve—yes, Adam and Eve—(laughter)—have two children, a daughter Alexa and a son Elijah. And I just want to point out, of course, as we all know, the Council is completely nonpartisan and has an open invitation and has continued to invite the chairman—the Republican chairman of House Intelligence, Devin Nunes. And he is welcome at any time to come to one of these sessions.
I want to start with something that is certainly being discussed here and also overseas that involves our reputation abroad, and also a threat that was outlined more broadly to the Intelligence Committee on the Senate side by the intelligence leaders, by the DNI, which is Russian interference through cyber, through social media. We’re now seeing, according to The Hamilton Project, that Russian bots for the last 48 hours have discussed Parkland, the high school in Florida, more than anything else. And we’ve also seen reporting from McClatchy and others that there was involvement and support for the NRA by Russian intermediaries during the election in 2016, something that still might be subject to investigation more broadly.
So I wanted to ask you about guns and about the American culture, and how this affects all of us. And whether you think—in my interviews in the last 24 hours we’ve heard from state officials, from the school superintendent, from parents and teachers, that the young people in this very large high school are not only traumatized but are also asking the question: We did not hear a single word about guns from the White House yesterday.
SCHIFF: Well, I think all of us are still having a hard time recovering from what happened in Florida. After every shooting—I have a high-school age son and a college-age daughter—I would tell my son: Don’t worry, this will never happen at your school. That’s gotten harder and harder for me to maintain. I don’t know how to talk to my son about it; I don’t know how any parent talks to their child about it. You really cannot say this is a problem somewhere else. It’s a problem everywhere.
And I was talking with one of my intel staff members, a wonderful staff on the Intelligence Committee and in my personal office, about the shooting yesterday, and he was saying, you know, I wanted to be on this committee because I wanted to work on national security and public safety, and it just seems so strange that we put so much effort into protecting ourselves from foreign threats, and we do little or nothing to protect ourselves from the threat that’s right on our doorstep. You know, why is that?
And I—you know, there are obviously a number of explanations, but wherever you see a really wide gulf between what the public wants and what the public gets there’s usually a powerful special interest in the way, and here, even the vast majority of NRA members support meaningful background checks and restrictions, but the leadership doesn’t, and the leadership has put enough fear into a majority of the members of the House and Senate that we can’t seem to make any progress, or if we are making progress, it’s only incrementally in changing attitudes, and we still haven’t seen it reflected in the Congress. The fact that the argument today that it’s too soon to talk about this is now the subject of such ridicule at least shows some progress, but clearly we have a long ways to go.
You know, as you can imagine, for understandable reasons, I tend to view a lot of what’s happening sometimes through a Russian prism. It is really interesting, when you look at the social media campaign the Russians undertook during the 2016 election, that one of the wedges they chose, aside from race with the Black Lives Matter sort of mock web pages and advertisements, were ads focused on the Second Amendment. The Russians are very big fans of our Second Amendment. They don’t particularly want one of their own, they don’t necessarily want lots of Russians running around with lots of guns, but they’re really happy we do. They would like nothing better than if we were shooting each other every day, which sadly we are. And sometimes you need to look at the perspective from the outside to understand the vulnerabilities we have, and what the Russians were about, more than anything else in the 2016 election—even more than helping one candidate or hurting the other—was to sow division within our society, weaken our democracy, and they view this as one of the fault lines to exploit.
MITCHELL: And DNI Coats was describing this as one of the major threats when he addressed the Senate. I was intrigued by the fact that there was no House Intelligence threat hearing for the agency chiefs, because when I covered Congress full time, first of all, the intelligence committee was completely bipartisan. Whenever a majority report was issued in the instance of the so-called Torture Report, there was also a minority report at the same time. We can get to the memo in a moment and the time lag between the release of the two memos, if one is going to be released.
But the other point being that there was always a threat hearing to the Senate and the House at the same time. Why has there been no scheduled threat hearing before House Intelligence?
SCHIFF: It’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. We have certainly asked that we conduct one, and you know, I would say the good news/bad news on our committee is the following. On the good news side, notwithstanding the chairman and my substantial differences on Russia and the conduct of the Russia probe, the other work of the committee has gone on without—I wouldn’t say without difficulty, but it has gone on effectively. So we have continued to put out intelligence authorization bills; indeed, we put one through the House on a very bipartisan basis where the Senate has not succeeded in doing so. We were able to pass a very difficult and complex 702 reform bill. That was no easy task.
So this is in that same category, I would expect, of non-Russia-related or certainly non-Russia-centric work that we ought to be able to do, so I can’t explain it. The Senate generally has gone first; the Senate always seems to go first. But our hearing(s) usually closely fall thereafter. I hope it will, and what’s more, I hope we can do a variety of other open hearings also that ought to be very non-partisan. One we have been advocating for a great many months is one on election security so that we can bring in the Department of Homeland Security, can bring in state elections officials, and we can kind of get a, you know, state-of-the-democracy check on how close we are to finishing work that has to be done to protect our polling places.
MITCHELL: Well, on that subject, the testimony from the Senate side was that Russia is involved in an ongoing campaign to meddle in our democracy, to undermine our democracy through social media and other means. And that in answer to questions, it was acknowledged, in answer to a question of FBI Director Wray, that the president has never sought a question, a solution, a program for defense. To my knowledge, there has never been a principals meeting or a deputies committee meeting. Do you think that there will be an adequate defense no matter what Homeland has done or is doing if the White House does not acknowledge that this is urgent?
SCHIFF: No, I don’t think there can be. The Russians are a very sophisticated cyber actor. If they want to get into the DNC in 2020 they’ll get in. If they want to get into the RNC, they’ll get in there. There’s no cyber fix for this. There’s no patch that we can implement to protect all our institutions. We’ve seen how even some of the best-protected institutions have been penetrated by the Russians, Chinese, and others. So there’s no, you know, perfect cyber cure here.
Ultimately, we need a whole-of-government response to this, which we’re not going to get as long as the commander in chief doesn’t insist on it. And he’s not going to insist on it because he views this as a threat to his legitimacy. Any acknowledgment of what the Russians did is a threat to his legitimacy.
More than that, though, what we really need is a bipartisan, indeed nonpartisan consensus that if any foreign power meddles again we will reject it, no matter who it helps and who it hurts. We didn’t have that in 2016. We had a candidate who was willing to egg on and encourage the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and they’d be richly rewarded and trumpeted every daily dump of these emails. That cannot happen again. Somehow we have to get past this.
And I’m often struck in my work with the terrible—it seems like mostly terrible—fortuity of world events. And one of the most terrible from my point of view is that at the very time where the Russians decided to be the last risk-averse, to jump into our elections with both feet in a very ham-handed way, it happened to be at the same time where one of the presidential candidates was willing to embrace that and not reject it. Because I’m certain that had John McCain or Mitt Romney been the nominee in 2016, they would have said, Russia, butt the hell out, we don’t need your help, we don’t want your help, we despise your involvements, we’re not going to make use of your ill-gotten gains. That’s not who we are.
But that’s not who Donald Trump was. And I think that, more than anything else, to protect ourselves in the future we need to develop that consensus, that any foreign interference will be rejected. It could cut in completely the opposite direction. The Russians are equal opportunity, malevolent actors. They’re not Republicans and they’re not Democrats, they’re just designed in their foreign policy, in their cyber policy to undermine the United States. They view the world as a zero-sum game where anything that’s good for us is bad for them and vice-versa.
I do think, though, that, in fairness, some of the responsibility is also attributed to the Obama administration for not establishing a more forceful deterrent. I think it goes back to the Korean hack of Sony in which there was a minimal response. I think that others around the world watched that and determined that cyber is a cost-free intervention. There will always be a certain level of plausible deniability with cyber because, even though we’re quite good at attribution now, we’re never going to want to fully who our hands about how we know who did what. But you don’t need to show your hand as long as you can establish a deterrent. And you don’t need to necessarily respond to a cyberattack with another cyber response.
I think the response in North Korea should have been an informational response. The North Koreans hate it when South Korea responds with information about how terrible their regime is. That, I think, if we had embarked on an informational response, would have been a deterrent to further North Korean meddling.
And with the Russians, we should have called them out much earlier. Senator Feinstein and I were the first two to make an official attribution, but it’s not the same coming from two members of Congress from the same party as it is from an administration. And while I respect to the motive in terms of the Obama administration, they didn’t want to be seen as meddling, the American people had a right to know what was going on and could be trusted to do the right thing with it. And they should have defended being more public and aggressive at the time, at least in my view.
MITCHELL: Let me ask you about Steve Bannon, because he was at your committee yesterday. And tell me your concerns, and other members’ concerns, because your Republican counterpart, Michael Conaway, who’s been in Devin Nunes’ place, at least technically in charge of this investigation, was complaining publicly afterwards that he had not answered—had only answered questions that had been preapproved by the White House. Is it likely that he will be facing a contempt citation, or not?
SCHIFF: I think it is likely he’ll face a contempt citation. My colleagues, I think, on the GOP, on our committee, have committed themselves. Now, they can always uncommit themselves, but a number of them have said publicly before yesterday that if the committee takes no for an answer it will not only impair our own investigation, but it will impair all future congressional investigations. If our committee or others in Congress establish a reputation that you can come in and you can just say no, and you can either give no reason for saying no or you can give the flimsiest of explanations.
I have to say—you know, and I know every week I live to think that something is even more absurd than the week before. (Laughter.) But I have to say, the invocation of privilege yesterday was the most absurd. And of course, we had the example of Don Jr. claiming, attorney-client, over this conversations with his father, when neither an attorney nor a client there. (Laughter.) So the bar is pretty high for most absurd. But I think that Steve Bannon exceeded the bar.
What the White House did is—when he first came in, they just instructed him not to answer a whole set of questions about anything that took place during the transition, anything that took place during the administration, and almost everything that took place even after he left the administration—no matter who he was talking to, or about, or with. They didn’t want to claim the privilege, but they didn’t want him to answer. So they just said: Don’t answer. So he came into committee and said: I’m not going to answer. Now, he’s a man without a country, neither in league with the White House nor in league with Breitbart anymore. So I guess that means we deal with this the way we should. We gave him a subpoena on the spot.
Now, that same week we had Corey Lewandowski come in. Corey Lewandowski gave an even more absurd answer in a way, because he said he wouldn’t answer the same questions Bannon wouldn’t answer. He wouldn’t answer anything after the day he left the campaign. But of course, he was never part of the administration. There was no even claim of a potential executive privilege down the road. He just said: I’m not prepared to answer those questions today. And the committee said: Oh, OK. Please come back when you find it convenient. (Laughter.)
No subpoena. No nothing. No talk about contempt. No nothing. I’ve been urging we bring him back ever since. I had a commitment at the time that we would bring him back, and I’m trying to make sure that we honor that commitment. But with Steve Bannon, when he did come back yesterday, he had a list of 25 questions that were written by the White House for him to answer. And that was all he would be able to answer. Now, I can’t go into the specifics of the questions, except to say that when you walk through them you could see both how purposefully, helpfully specific and misleading they were designed to be, and how breathtaking the claim of privilege is if we would ever accept this as the contours of executive privilege.
They were things like: Did you ever meet with so-and-so? Now, if the question was written out for him, the answer was no. There were no questions on the list in which the answer was anything but no. That should tell you something. But then if you followed up and said: Did you speak with so and so, the answer was yes. Well, what did you talk about? And then there was no willingness to answer. I’m not authorized to answer that question.
So if you just asked the question that was written by the White House, you would think they never communicated. That’s the misleading nature of what the White House presented. Now, I think they were way too cute by half, because to the degree that there is any legitimate executive privilege as to a very small subset, I think they have waived it by having him answer questions in that selective fashion. I think they’ve also waived it if he has testified on these topics before special counsel without indicating privilege. And when I asked him whether he’d invoked privilege before any other body, he refused to answer.
So the White House I think must know, because they have decent lawyers at the White House, that this is an absurdly broad claim of privilege and they are undermining their own position by making such a claim. But I think that they feel that if they can just delay it long enough, if they can just appeal to the partisan interest on our committee, maybe they can make us go away—maybe they can outwait us, maybe they can outlitigate us.
But it is interesting, Andrea, that the White House views this witness differently than all others, because we’ve had other high administration and campaign officials in who have testified about the transition, about their time in the administration, and they’ve made no claim of such privilege. So why is Steve Bannon different? It may be because they don’t feel they can control Steve Bannon. I don’t know. Although it does concern me that Steve Bannon has the same counsel as others in the White House.
But in any event, that’s where we are. I think there’s really no choice for our committee but to move forward with contempt. And I would suspect that Mr. Bannon has been informed that they will only stonewall so far; they will never allow him to be fined or go to jail, but they do wish to draw out the process as long as they can.
MITCHELL: I want to ask you about the security of classified information in the White House. We are reporting that 135 people in the office—the Executive Office of the President, including assistants to the president, including the general counsel, as of November did not have proper security clearances to handle (covert ?) security. How are they doing their job? And this includes, by the way, division leaders in the National Security Council, as well as the deputy national security adviser. And if they’re doing their job, is that a violation of national security? Or are they being cleared by the president to do what they have to do?
SCHIFF: Well, it’s very hard for us to gain visibility into what’s going on in the White House. And of course, when you and others ask the White House these questions, you get a variety of explanations that evolve over time.
MITCHELL: Is this different than the usual backlog and the time that it takes for any new administration to gear up?
SCHIFF: You know, it certainly seems to me that it is very different in scale. I would imagine at the beginning of any administration you have a backlog of security clearances, and some take more time than others given the background of the individuals you’re trying to clear. But here, where you’re operating on interim after interim after interim clearance with people in the most sensitive positions who really have a need to know, there’s only one of two possibilities. Either the White House is doing things correctly and restricting access of these people to classified information, in which case they’re not getting the full benefit of the information they need to advise the president, or they’re getting access to information they’re not cleared to see. Either way, obviously, is a real problem.
And then you add, you know, the additional issues of why people may not be having the clearances. Now, I would assume that the vast majority it may be issues of just the time it’s taking, but with others, you know, clearly we have seen there are additional problems. We know from public reporting vis-à-vis Jared Kushner that there were all kinds of foreign contacts that weren’t reported the first time and weren’t reported the second time. And then you have, with Rob Porter, other problems that have prevented their clearance from going through. And, you know, I think it’s both alarming on the one hand how some brought a complete lack of seriousness or candor to their filings, and others there may be serious impediments to their getting a clearance.
But at the end of the day, you already have a very inexperienced crowd at the White House. And to deny the president the benefit of having people who are fully briefed really undercuts one of the great strengths which we have, is—and that is the world’s finest intelligence services that can provide good insights to the president and our decision-makers.
MITCHELL: I want to ask you about the status of the Democratic memo. Is it being rewritten? Do you think it will come out? And will there be any value to it once it does?
SCHIFF: Well, I have to tell you, last week I was back in my district and the Writers Guild Awards are hosted in my district and I went to the awards and—(laughter)—
MITCHELL: Did you get one for the Democratic memo?
SCHIFF: Well, no, but the emcee did say that I had the hottest spec script out there. (Laughter.) I’m not sure it’s such a hot spec script. I’ve really been doing my best not to hype it the way my GOP colleagues did theirs.
What we wrote in our memo basically were the material facts that were left out of the majority memo that are drawn from the FISA applications. And we’re in discussions with the FBI and the Department of Justice.
You know, of course, the FBI and Department of Justice position is the GOP memo should have never been declassified to begin with, it was false and misleading. They don’t happen to like declassification of the FISA Court proceedings at all and the precedent that it sets, which I can well understand.
What we are trying to negotiate with them is what redactions are necessary to protect sources and methods or specific investigative interests. And the rest should be declassified, and I think we’re very close to reaching agreement on it. So I hope that that’s finished very soon.
What I’m trying to gain visibility into is, what are the concerns of FBI and DOJ because we want to redact that? And what are political redactions that the White House might be insisting on? So what we’re trying to gain is that insight. And obviously, the Department of Justice and FBI are in a difficult position. They would rather not get further sideways, I’m sure, with the president than they have to.
But our committee did vote to declassify this. And, you know, we are, I think, on our part, the minority, taking the prudent path of wanting to make sure we address any of the legitimate concerns of the bureau and department. And I think we will resolve that very shortly so that we can release this and get back to where the focus ought to be, and that is, what did the Russians do, what did the campaign do, what did they do in combination? We continue to learn more and more.
And I, you know, I do think it’s important to underscore what our responsibility is compared to the special prosecutor, because I know a lot of people look at the special counsel and they think, OK, if that’s going on, then do we really need these other investigations? And they’re so plagued with different problems. It’s not Bob Mueller’s job to tell the country what happened. It’s Bob Mueller’s job to decide who’s broken the law and who should go to jail. And I say that because Bob Mueller may or may not be able to speak outside of the four corners of an indictment.
So how is the country going to find out what really happened? How is the country going to find out what evidence we’ve uncovered that may not reach proof beyond a reasonable doubt of criminal activity? And that’s our job. That’s our job. And as difficult as that has been and with all the partisan tensions that accompany it, it’s still important for that work to go on and we have a lot more work to do. We have interviewed dozens of witnesses, we’ve gotten tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of documents, but there are yet a great many witnesses that we have not brought in who have very relevant testimony.
And perhaps more importantly, I have the benefit or the liability of having been a prosecutor and worked on white-collar investigations. It’s not just about bringing in witnesses who then deny anything. That’s not investigation. You have to do the follow-up work to find out who’s telling the truth and who isn’t and that often involves the painstaking work of getting banking records and getting telephone records and getting other documents and bringing in the smaller witnesses that saw things that are inconsistent with what the bigger witnesses had to say. That is often the most important work in the investigation and that work is not going on like it should, and it has to get done, it just has to get done.
So that’s really what we need to be focused on. I hope we never go down this memo path again. I don’t think we will. I think my colleagues in the GOP recognize it was a big mistake. But nonetheless, they have committed, at least our chairman has committed, that this is only the first phase and there are many more to come. They may not take the form of a memo, but they will take the form, it appears, of sequential attacks on our institutions to undermine confidence in the Justice Department and the FBI and Bob Mueller and the State Department. I think it’s a singularly destructive enterprise that gets us no closer to figuring out what the Russians did or what we need to do to protect ourselves in the future. But it is one of the reasons why we felt it important to respond on this memo, because this isn’t the end of it. We are going to see more efforts like this to discredit our institutions.
MITCHELL: I want to open it up to questions in a moment, but I want to ask you about North Korea before we move on. Now we are hearing—although there are still mixed signals between different members of the Cabinet—but the vice president has certainly indicated a willingness to talk about talks, to have direct talks with the North. At the same time, there are credible reports that the administration does have this so-called bloody nose option of, quote, “a limited nuclear strike,” as a deterrent against North Korea, which was one of the factors that most likely did contribute in Victor Cha, after being cleared and introduced to the South Koreans as our new ambassador, was pulled back and his nomination dropped by the White House because of his objections. What is your view towards the use of nuclear weapons in this fashion, as is reportedly being considered, over Pentagon—despite Pentagon concerns?
SCHIFF: Well, I think there’s no such thing as a bloody nose strategy or a limited nuclear strike, because there’s no way to confine it to being limited in any way. Even if the North Koreans don’t respond through the use of nuclear weapons, they have enough conventional artillery to devastate Seoul, to cause an enormous loss of life. We’re already dealing with an erratic and murderous regime. So I just don’t think that is an option. And what I do think we ought to be doing is maximizing our pressure on China. I don’t think it either needs to be done or should be done in a public way.
But I think we should be having private conversations with the Chinese, who hold the maximum leverage over North Korea. Not complete control by any means, but a phenomenal degree of leverage. And laying out all the things that we are going to need to do if they can’t get their client under control. And that means dramatically expanding theater missile defense, dramatically expanding our naval presence in the regime, embarking on an aggressive campaign of secondary sanctions, which would hit Chinese banks. We should be laying out all the things that we would reluctantly feel we need to do to protect ourselves and our allies.
That, I believe, gives China a reason to do a lot more. They’re not going to do a lot more because the president tweets nice things about President Xi or malicious things. And they’re certainly not going to do it if the president is one page, and the vice president’s on another, and the secretary of state’s on a third, and our U.N. ambassador’s on a fourth. We need to have everyone on the same page. And not just within the administration, but also with our allies in the region. And then we have a chance. Even with all of that, it may not be enough. But without all of that, we can be assured it’s not going to be enough.
And so I think our strategy ought to be linking arms with South Korea and Japan and our other allies. It ought to be maximizing pressure on China. It ought to be doing our best to cut off the backdoor the Russians have opened to fill in what the Chinese cut off. And seeing if we can force the North Koreans to the table. So I think we ought to be open to talking with them. And I think this ought to be the strategy. But the idea that somehow we can have a limited strike on North Korea of a nuclear nature, or a non-nuclear nature, puts us on a potentially disastrous course. And none of that should be contemplated until every other option has been exhausted. And I think there’s still far more that we ought to be doing diplomatically.
MITCHELL: Thank you for that. And I’d like to open this up to questions. Let’s start right there in the second row.
Q: Yes. Nina Gardner, Strategy International and activist.
I just wanted to thank you for everything you’re doing. You’re one of the few voices of reason on TV there. And I just wanted to ask you, what is the strategy as we move forward toward impeachment? (Laughter.) Seriously, do we have to wait to a new Congress because the GOP seems to have lost its spine? And I’ve just been shocked—I expected it to happen a lot earlier. So please tell us where we go, because we cannot survive this anymore.
SCHIFF: Yeah. Well, this may not be the answer you’re looking for—(laughter)—but I do get this question a lot. I tried an impeachment case. I have an unusual experience in this area.
About eight or 10 years ago I was on the Judiciary Committee. We impeached a judge from New Orleans on corruption charges. And I know you must be imagining New Orleans, corruption, impossible. (Laughter.) But he took us to trial in the Senate, and I was asked to help lead the prosecution. And it taught me a lot about impeachment in a way that few get that lesson, because how often does that kind of thing happen. And one of the things that was driven home to me as we looked into what constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors—and in that case we had some issues of, if not first impression, first impression in a very long time.
So we had an issue. We impeached him for conduct that he had committed: corrupt acts before he was on the bench, lying during his confirmation, and while he was on the federal bench. And so some of the threshold questions involved can you be impeached for conduct that took place before you were elected or before you were appointed. And, obviously, there are relevant applications there.
We had to go back 150 years to find an answer. We found a prior judicial impeachment involving a judge who had been impeached in the House on seven counts of prior conduct, seven counts of conduct while he was on the bench, and one omnibus count. And the Senate 150 years ago convicted this judge on all of the counts while on the bench and the omnibus count, but acquitted on all the prior counts. And at first blush, it looked like you could not be impeached for prior conduct.
But I asked our wonderful staff to dig into the Senate record and see what they could find out, how many senators spoke about their verdicts and what they had to say. And what we found was that a majority of those who spoke—and not all of them did, but a majority of those who spoke—said that they believed you could be impeached on prior conduct, but the quality of the proof on the prior acts was insufficient. So they voted to acquit not because they didn’t think it was constitutional, but because they thought the proof inadequate.
The long and the short of it is the Senate eight to 10 years ago convicted this judge on both the prior and the post counts, as well as for lying during his confirmation. So we now have a very recent precedent that you can be impeached for prior conduct.
And the other thing, though, that was quite apparent is that there’s a legal standard of what meets a high crime and misdemeanor, what are the elements of the potential offense, do you even need an offense, but then there’s the political standard. And probably the most significant is the political standard. The political standard today, during a GOP Congress, is can GOP members go back to their GOP districts and make the argument that the president’s conduct was so incompatible with office that they needed to vote to remove him, and this wasn’t simply about nullifying an election that those other people didn’t like. If they can’t make that argument, there’s no impeachment.
And one of the reasons why I have urged my colleagues in the House not to be taking up impeachment resolutions on the floor is if the time comes where we find sufficient evidence and the special prosecutor finds—special counsel finds sufficient evidence that’s presented to us that we believe rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor, it is going to be important for people to know that that was not something that we were seeking from the very beginning, that we were embracing from the very beginning, that it was a reluctant conclusion because of what this will put the country through. So I think early talk about impeachment before we finished our investigation makes that case more difficult if the evidence comes to support it.
And so my view is we need to finish the investigation. We need to do a credible investigation, and we need to finish it, and we need to let Bob Mueller do his job. And a big part of what I consider my job right now is making sure we stay the hell out of Bob Mueller’s way. And then we look at the facts, and then we decide does that meet the constitutional standard. That’s, I think, the process that we need to follow.
Q: Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council. Thank you for your work.
I know you’re trying to stay out of Bob Mueller’s way, but I’d be interested in your assessment of how he’s proceeding in his investigation, whether you have a sense that he may be collecting information that he would not bring to the public until after our November elections, for example, waiting to see if the House changes hands, and if there might actually be a more reasonable prospect of impeachment than there is now with Republican control.
And the other question I have is whether there is any coordination between what you are doing and what the Senate is doing, and if you have a sense of what their goal is in their investigation and how it might differ from yours.
SCHIFF: Well, I have to say I have been very impressed with what I have seen of Bob Mueller and his investigation. He has assembled, I think, a phenomenal team. I’m deeply jealous of the team that he has put together.
I have a phenomenal staff. They’re bright and they work 24/7, seven days a week, and they do it with no windows. (Laughter.) We all work in a bunker three floors below the Capitol. We have no wall; I hope we never have a wall. But nonetheless, they’ve terrific, but they’re largely analysts. Our job generally is analyzing what the intelligence agencies are doing, and they’re not trained to be investigators.
Bob Mueller’s team are a group of trained investigators who have a variety of skill sets that are very important right now. And I worked on white collar cases, but there’s a very special skill set for working on money laundering investigations, and there’s another skill set for working on other kind of investigations. So he’s got, I think, a very capable team.
I’m also very impressed at how buttoned up their operation is. You learn very little about what comes out of their shop, as it should be.
We have only the most limited visibility. We have tried to coordinate really only in the sense of not bringing people before our committee where it would be an impediment to his investigation. We are working on the timing. We couldn’t afford to say we’re going to go into hiatus until you’re done because there’s some urgency of our task as well, but you know, from what I can see and the conduct in terms of the guilty pleas and the indictments, it seems like a very orderly process, and moving at lightning speed.
You know, having worked on cases that—not like this because no one has worked on a case like this—but cases of much smaller magnitude, they can take years, and I think he has worked at a dramatic pace. I’m sure that he realizes that he does not have the luxury of an extended, unlimited clock.
In terms of the Senate and our own investigation, there is certainly some effort at coordination, but it’s limited, and frankly, I can understand the reluctance—if there is reluctance—on the Senate part to get too close to our committee given the problems that we’ve had. If I were in the Senate committee I’d probably feel the same way, but we do our best to coordinate.
In the Senate there are two investigations: the Senate Intel investigation, which I think is focused on the issues that are within our charter; that is, what did the Russians do, and what did the Trump campaign do, et cetera. The Senate Judiciary Committee is embarked on an investigation that looks different, looks a lot more like the investigation that our chairman is doing on his own; that is, it’s an investigation not of the Russians, but an investigation of the investigators. And of course, I—you know, this is a familiar tactic of defense counsel, to put the government on trial, but you know, what I urge my colleagues on our committee is we should not view ourselves as prosecutors and defense counsel. We should all be investigators.
The president is not their client. The American people are their client and our client as well. But that’s a little bit, I think, about the different nature of the investigations in the different bodies.
What I had advocated from the very beginning, which was more attractive at the very beginning, was we ought to be doing this jointly, it should be a bicameral, bipartisan investigation. We’re interviewing the same witnesses the Senate Intel Committee is. We’re duplicating a lot of effort, and given that we both have very limited staffs, it would be much more efficient if we were working together and could parcel out the tasks. That’s water under the bridge at this point, but had we been doing this right, we would have had a 9/11-like commission, and we would have had—as we did after 9/11—a joint Senate-House Intel investigation.
Q: Hi. My name is Lesley Warner. I work on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democratic staff.
At times, I am an optimist and I think that we will, we as a country, will get through this period of time. And so my question is, what measures do you think need to be taken, first of all, to rebuild trust within HPSCI; second of all, to rebuild trust with our intel-sharing allies; and third of all, and most importantly, rebuild trust within the American people?
MITCHELL: May I also follow up and ask about the level of distrust with our allies because of some of the things that have happened, particularly the Brits.
SCHIFF: Right. Well, first of all, I’m an optimist and these days have strained even the most optimistic among us, but I remain optimistic. We’ll get through this. We are, I think, a strong and resilient country and we’ll get through this. We’ve been through worse.
I always come back to something that Bill Clinton once said: There’s nothing wrong in America that can’t be cured by what’s right in America. And there’s an awful lot right in America that will see us through this.
I’m continually struck by the parallels between what we’re seeing and what took place during Watergate when there was similar partisan discord and conspiracy theories and the country wondered whether it would recover. So we’ll get through this.
In terms of the dysfunction and distrust on our committee, the distrust the American people have towards its institutions, the distrust our allies have for us, it will take time. As I mentioned, on our committee, our staff continue to work together well on the non-Russia-related issues. And, you know, in my view, and you can write this off to my party affiliation or my being the ranking member, but we were on a good bipartisan track on Russia up until what’s now called the midnight run. If the chairman of your committee doing an investigation is too close to the White House, they can’t be objective, and they haven’t been and he hasn’t been. That’s a real problem and I don’t know how you overcome that problem. You know, we’re trying to keep our focus on what we need to do and we make progress. And I think until this probe is over, that will be the case.
In terms of the committee and the intelligence community, you know, there’s been some lasting damage. This memo did lasting damage because the intelligence community is now very wary of sharing information with our committee. There is a deep distrust, I think, of the leadership of our committee and in our chairman. And so I think they will be loath to share with us.
I think sources of information will be more reluctant to share with the intelligence community if they think what they provide will not be respected and, if the partisan winds change, might be revealed. So that will take time to mitigate.
Our relationship with our allies has been strained from time to time. You had the president suggesting the British were in league with the deep state in this country to spy on him at Trump Tower. Now, our relationships with our sister intelligence agencies are so strong they will survive this. And indeed, you know, the men and women around the world that work together to try to protect ourselves, our common interests, our common citizens, they’ve never stopped working together.
There may be in some cases and on some issues a greater reluctance to share. So if there are sister intelligence agencies that have particularly Russia-related information, they may—they may be more reluctant to share. I hope not. I hope they will continue to do so, but they can’t be encouraged by what they hear the president say because, of course, all of our allies know exactly what Russia is up to. And they know this is no hoax, this is no witch hunt, this is no charade. This is serious business because they see the Russians interfere in their own countries every day and they were doing it well-before 2016.
But time cures a lot of things. Time will cure this. You know, one of the arguments I make frequently in our committee is we need to be thinking, all of us, beyond this administration about the long-term impacts of what we do or don’t do. We need to be thinking about that.
So we’ll get past this. We’ll take our lumps along the way. There’ll come a time when we have, in my view, a different administration that will restore a lot of this trust and, more than that, restore our position in the rest of the world. Because it’s not just the IC, obviously. The walking out of the climate pact was devastating to our global leadership. The derogatory things that were said about NATO, the disrespectful things that were said about Europe, and the encouragement of Brexit. And all those things have had an impact, but not one that is indelible. A different administration, a new administration can quickly begin restoring our standing.
Q: Thank you. Elizabeth Bodine-Baron from the RAND Corporation.
Given the difficulties and issues that you and others have raised, what can Congress do to better support organizations like the Global Engagement Center at the State Department in their mission to counter foreign state propaganda?
SCHIFF: Well, yes.
MITCHELL: And the rest of the State Department. (Laughter.)
SCHIFF: Well I—you know, we can start by appointing people to carry out the functions of the State Department—(laughter)—by making sure that the State Department had the resources to do its job, by publicly supporting its mission. There are numerable things that obviously need to be done. And this is one of the great challenges, frankly, as a policymaker. And that is, there are deep problems within almost every agency right now. And it’s hard to know where to begin. And the public can’t focus on everything all at once. And so how do you prioritize the problems? In a normal situation, the hollowing out of the State Department, the undermining of our diplomatic mission, the weakening of that whole arsenal in our toolbox would be front and center. But it’s just one of an innumerable number of things.
When an alleged affair between the president and a porn star and hush money barely can break through—(laughter)—you know where you are in the state of affairs. (Laughter.) So, you know, you’re absolutely right to point to this. And the Congress needs to insist on proper funding. We need to continue to bring in the secretary of state and others in the State Department and say: What are you doing about this? How are you resourcing this? What actions are you taking? We should bring in people throughout the State Department to talk about the problems they’re encountering as a way of shedding a light on the work that needs to be done.
Q: Courtney Radsch with the Committee to Protect Journalists, and a former member from your district.
A question for you, and also for Andrea, about the role of the media in amplifying what’s happening on social media. You spoke about—you forgot actually a very important part of your biography, which is that you’re also the chair of the Press Freedom Caucus. And, you know, you talked about the importance of social media and interference from Russia, which appears to be mainly in the media environment. But doesn’t the mainstream media play an important role in deciding to amplify what is on social media? There’s not an inherent value in the fact that a million people tweeted something. That’s amplified because the media says it’s important or because policymakers decide to look at social media as an indicator of public opinion. So isn’t there something that could be done by both the media and politicians to get away from using that as an indicator of public sentiment, that would decrease the power of Russia on that platform?
And also, related to that, with the FARA legislation, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, could you talk about how you’re going to ensure that any sort of attempt to regulate media and foreign media with that act—how are you going to make sure that it’s clear that that act is not going to restrict legitimate journalism?
SCHIFF: Right. Well, these are great questions. And my wife always tells me, quite rightly, my answers are too long. (Laughter.) And you’re not making it any easier for me.
I think that the ways in which we now get information is one of the most vexing problems our society faces. There are lots of elements to this. There are lots of reasons we are in the place we are right now, with a bitterly divided public, with a bitterly divided Congress. Some have to do with how we finance campaigns and some have to do how we jerry-rig districts, but a big part of it is also how we get our information now. We all get our information from different places, and increasingly people choose the information they want to hear.
When I was in college—this is how old I am—I remember rushing back to my dormitory to see Walter Cronkite’s last broadcast. And that was a time when the country had a fairly broad set of objective fact that we could agree on. And people had differing opinions about what to do with that, but at least we could agree on the basic facts. Then we moved to a model where we had different cable stations, and people would tune in to the station that was more reflective of their views. Now information has been so democratized that you can live in a particular information bubble online.
I used to say that most young people get their news from Facebook. Now you can actually say most people, most Americans get their news from Facebook. And it’s a revelation when I tell constituents that when they go to their Facebook page and I go to mine, and we see those stories that pop up below, they’re not the same stories. I think people are under the impression we’re all seeing the same thing when we go on our Facebook page. We’re not.
And one of the things that really was hammered home to me as we began looking into this issue vis-à-vis Russia’s manipulation of social media is there’s certainly one profound issue about how our social media and therefore our opinion can be perniciously influenced by foreign bad actors, by amplifying things through bots so that we only think things are trending, but the problem is really far broader than foreign manipulation of a platform. The much greater concern societally may be the fact that these algorithms show us what we want to see to keep us on the platform, because the longer we’re on the platform the more advertising can be sold to us. This wasn’t done perniciously; it was done because it’s good business.
But the impact is that if my Facebook page showed me news that only came from Fox, I’d be much less likely to go on Facebook all the time. And for my conservative friends, you know, the opposite would be true. If they got nothing but, you know, Daily Kos popping up in their feed, my Republican colleagues probably wouldn’t go on Facebook very much. So we get what we want to see, and the algorithms are very sophisticated now in showing us very particularly what we want to see, and not exposing us to contrary opinion, or when they do it’s for the purpose of ridicule.
Interestingly, in looking at the Russian use of this horrible shooting in Florida, they would often combine pro-gun-control hashtags with anti-gun-control stories that were really designed to ridicule the movement in favor of gun safety legislation.
But this is, I think, a far, you know, broader societal issue. You know, certainly there are subsets of that. The mainstream media is pulling things from social media. We saw during the 2016 election that fake persona(s) that were actually very ethnically Russian residents of St. Petersburg pretending to be residents of Florida were cited by news commentators. And how would they know? There was no way for them to know that this was completely bogus.
So I do think that one of the things that’s going to come out of this period is a profound distrust for information that we get through social media now, and we should be distrustful. We should be skeptical when we see things that are trending or whatnot that this is not being manipulated.
There is no easy answer to this, though. This is—this is why I think, of all the problems, it’s the most vexing. With the First Amendment, we’re not going to be limiting speech. We’re not going to be telling people where to get their information. And you’re right to point to the FARA issue. I was happy when they required RT, which is the Kremlin propaganda arm, to register, but you could see that being abused as a way of restricting legitimate purveyors of information.
And, of course, one of the most pernicious things we see going on is, by the president’s demeaning of our media, really demeaning of the whole idea that there is something called objective fact, he has given a useful model to autocrats around the world who now use his own vocabulary of “fake news” to disparage credible reports of corruption within their regimes.
So I never thought that this caucus that I cofounded with Mike Pence about 16 years ago would need to focus so much at home, but we do. And this is going to be, I think, a very long-term, difficult challenge for the country.
MITCHELL: And I know time is short. And I just want to add—and not because it’s ours, but because it could become a model—that yesterday we posted 200 Twitter accounts on our website that are connected to Russian bots. And so we are trying to be more proactive about this, but we have a lot of work to do and I think so do Facebook and the major, you know, platforms.
I think we have time for one more question, one more quick question. (Laughter.)
And with deference to your wife, a short answer.
Q: Hi. And I’ll give a quick question. Nelson Cunningham with McLarty Associates.
You made a very important point that many people overlook, which is there may never be a Mueller report. We think because 20 years ago Ken Starr did a report, well, yes, there will be a Mueller report. That statutory authorization that guided Ken Starr’s investigation expired. The provision under which Mueller was appointed makes no provision for a report. It says that he will make his conclusions, he will close his case. He’ll speak privately to Rod Rosenstein. There’s no provision for a public report.
In your view, should Congress go back and look at this issue and think about it? Should we have reports in cases like this where there is an investigation into what could be high crimes and misdemeanors that would require the special counsel to give a report to the Congress?
MITCHELL: And you’ve got the example of the Comey report—
MITCHELL: —such as it was, being so controversial.
SCHIFF: Right. No, it’s a very, very good question and, at this point, completely unresolved. Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo justifying the firing of James Comey for speaking out too much, for giving too public a report about the Clinton email investigation.
And so, you know, one of the issues I have raised with the deputy attorney general is, how are we going to deal with this when the investigations come to an end? Will there be a report to Congress? And what will Bob Mueller be able to disclose publicly? I think these are still very open questions.
I have to think and I have to hope that the public both interest and need to know is so profound that what Bob Mueller finds will be shared with Congress and that Congress will be empowered to share it with the country. Because one of the things that I fear, particularly since we are limited in what our majority is allowing us to investigate—and there are undoubtedly limits on the Senate side as well—that Bob Mueller will be in possession of information we don’t have, we will be in possession of information potentially that Bob Mueller doesn’t have. The public should get all that information. And so I hope that we have the benefit of his work at the end of the day.
I don’t know at this stage whether we could move legislation like that. I would love to see something like that coupled with something to protect Bob Mueller from getting fired or Rod Rosenstein from getting fired. And the greater concern I’ve had over the last two months is Rod Rosenstein. The most effective way to cripple Bob Mueller is not by firing him, it’s by giving him a new boss that tells him you can’t look at this, you can’t look at that, and it’s time to close up shop. And if the president is given the opportunity to appoint a yes-man in that job, that’s very well what we might get and we would have no visibility into that.
What Rod Rosenstein is telling Bob Mueller right now we don’t know and we’re not likely to know if he were fired and replaced by someone else, so this is a profound concern. It’s one of the reasons why I would view the firing of Rod Rosenstein the same way I would view the firing of Bob Mueller, as its own form of Saturday Night Massacre that would bring about a constitutional crisis in the country.
But you’re absolutely right to point out there’s no guarantees of a report to the Congress or the country. But at the end of the day, we need to insist on one.