WASHINGTON — With impeachment officially under way, Rep. Adam Schiff launched into a dramatic reading of “the essence” of US President Donald Trump’s conversation with the president of Ukraine.
“I’m going to say this only seven times, so you better listen good,” said the House intelligence committee chairman on Thursday, voicing his interpretation of Trump’s message to President Volodymyr Zelensky. “I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent.”
Play-acting as Trump marked an audacious debut for the Democrat from California, the careful chairman who is now the face of the formal impeachment probe against the nation’s 45th president. Known as precise if sometimes provocative, Schiff in this elevated role is trying to strike a balance between the Democrats’ facts-only approach to the explosive investigation and his love of a public, dramatic flourish.
On that, Schiff, 59, and the former reality star president, 73, have something in common. It shows on Twitter in an unending exchange of insults that have included the president turning Schiff’s name into a foul schoolyard taunt and the congressman replying with, “good one.”
WATCH: The opening statement that got under Republicans' skin so much, they won't stop talking about it. pic.twitter.com/wIVY79JNx0
— DNC War Room (@DNCWarRoom) September 26, 2019
But that was back when Schiff, a former prosecutor, triathlete and sometimes-screenwriter, was only one of several House chairmen tracking Trump’s role in Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Mueller report found no conspiracy involving the president — but plenty of evidence of Trump’s obstruction. Even so, a series of House hearings failed to rouse support for impeachment from the public, vulnerable Democrats, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Then came a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s attempt to push Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden, which quickly accomplished what the Mueller report could not. Vulnerable Democratic freshmen swung behind impeachment in an op-ed over the weekend, freeing up Pelosi to back it. In a private meeting Thursday, the newcomers told her that they want to center the effort on Ukraine, move quickly, and that Schiff should lead the investigation, according to a person familiar with the session.
The acceleration puts Schiff, who is Jewish, in a more elevated, but also more sensitive position. So on Thursday when he opened the first hearing with his dramatic reading, some Democrats quietly worried that he had handed Trump a weapon against the probe’s credibility. Some in Schiff’s party said they viewed this part of Schiff’s statement as unnecessary, especially given that the president’s actual words had been made public.
“Rep. Adam Schiff totally made up my conversation with Ukraine President and read it to Congress and Millions,” Trump tweeted on Friday. “He must resign and be investigated.”
Schiff tweeted back at Trump: “You’re right about one thing — your words need no mockery. Your own words and deeds mock themselves.”
The Democrats’ moments of anxiety passed and Schiff is plowing ahead. On Friday, his committee was one of three that jointly subpoenaed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for documents related to the impeachment inquiry.
He planned to keep his committee at work even over the two-week recess that began on Friday and didn’t bat down suggestions that there could be a vote on impeachment before year’s end.
Others bristled at any comparison of Schiff with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who leads the Judiciary Committee that would draft articles of impeachment, in part because many of the intelligence committee’s hearings are classified and held in private.
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California sits on both committees and said Schiff was effective after his opening statement. “He asked the questions that people want to know. He did it in a tough but fair way. But I’m not going to compare Schiff to Nadler, I think it’s just different roles.”
Those who have worked with Schiff say he has command of the material and brings along other members.
“He understands the questions that need to be answered and figures out a way to ask the right witnesses the right questions,” said Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi.
But even in their support for Schiff, Democrats are clear about what they expect from him.
“He’s uniquely positioned on the Ukraine issue to handle it,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, a member of Nadler’s panel, adding, “and to conclude it quickly.”
Even among the few Democrats who have not called for Trump’s impeachment, there is confidence in Schiff.
“I think he should just state what [the transcript] says,” said one, Rep. Jefferson Van Drew of New Jersey. But he gave Schiff props for not letting the hearing this week get “charged” like the one the House Judiciary Committee held earlier this month with Trump confidante Corey Lewandowski.
It’s not the first time Schiff has drawn Republican outrage. During Trump’s presidency, he’s said there’s “more than circumstantial evidence” of a relationship between Russia and Trump’s associates and said the Russia investigation is of “a size and scope probably beyond Watergate.”
For his part, Schiff went on CNN to declare that he “certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that there’s anything comical about this” Ukraine investigation.
But Republicans remained furious about Schiff’s interpretation of Trump’s call.
“Stop making him the belle of the ball,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior adviser, scolded reporters.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.