Schiff: The Risk of Authoritarianism Is 'Greater Than It's Ever Been'

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) believes American democracy is on the brink.

Schiff, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and head of Congress’ investigation of the January 6th insurrection, is adamant that the false allegations of election fraud advanced by former President Trump and his allies have brought us to a dangerous point. And he blames many of his colleagues in Washington for helping push the country over the edge. 

“If you’ve got a majority of one party believing that any time they lose it’s because the elections were stolen, then it’s a very short road to violence and authoritarianism,” Schiff tells Rolling Stone

Schiff’s new book, Midnight In Washington, documents his front-row seat to a moment he calls “our present unraveling.” The congressman sat down with Rolling Stone last week to discuss the book, his harrowing experience being evacuated from the House floor on January 6th, and his efforts to prevent the same — or worse — from happening again. 

During the special counsel investigation into alleged Kremlin interference in the 2016 election, Schiff was one of the most prominent voices arguing that the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia were potentially illegal. His position earned him a slew of nicknames from Trump — “Pencil Neck” and “Shifty Schiff’ among them — and the ire of the Republican Party. And even though Mueller’s investigation did not result in charges, Schiff remains adamant there was clear “collusion” between Trump’s team and Russia. Specifically, he cites the fact that U.S. officials have said Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, shared internal polling data with an associate who was linked to Russian intelligence. 

“We now know that the Trump campaign chairman was giving internal polling data and strategic information about battleground states directly to Russian intelligence while Russian intelligence was running a social media campaign to elect Donald Trump,” says Schiff. “What more visible proof of collusion do you need?” 

Schiff also helped lead Trump’s first impeachment trial, over the former president’s alleged efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to launch an investigation into Hunter Biden. “We warned that, if the Senate didn’t honor their oath and didn’t remove this man, that he would try to cheat again. He would try until he succeeded and it’s just haunting that all of that might have been avoided if people…” Schiff says, before catching himself. “I can’t even say if people recognized the danger because I think they did recognize the danger. They just didn’t have the courage to do anything about it apart from [Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT)],” the only Republican senator to vote in favor of impeachment the first time around.

Indeed one of the more striking elements of Schiff’s book is his up-close-and-personal description of the tensions that have developed between his Democratic colleagues and Republican members who backed Trump’s effort to overturn the election after he lost to Biden. While Schiff says he has some empathy for the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th because they “really believe the Big Lie,” he says Republicans in Congress “knew the election was fairly won and yet they were willing to undermine the pillar of our democracy.” Schiff dubbed this “the last in an endless series of rationalizations, justifications, and political calculus triumphing over any devotion to the Constitution or the country or our democracy” that took place under Trump. 

“I watched this for four years as people I knew and respected, had good relationships with, step-by-step succumbed to the immorality of this president,” says Schiff, before adding, “That’s how democracies come to an end.”

This has led to what he calls a “transformation” in Congress, particularly after the Capitol came under attack and some Republicans continued to try to decertify the results.

“How do we work with them? How do we look them in the face?” Schiff asks. “I think everyone reached their own separate judgements. Some will never co-sponsor a bill again with anybody that voted to decertify the results.”

For his part, Schiff says he has had to work with other members of Congress who backed overturning the vote, since he chairs the Intelligence Committee. “A majority of the people on the Intelligence Committee, the Republican members, voted to decertify the election,” Schiff says. “If I am unwilling to work with them, we can’t get anything done.” 

Over the summer, Schiff was named to the House Select Committee that is investigating the January 6th attack. He says the members of the committee — including two Republican Trump critics — believe the threat didn’t end that day.

“All of us on the select committee, I think, are more than aware there may be another violent attack on the Capitol. But my feeling is, while that is true, it will not succeed any more than the last one did,” Schiff says. “But where they may succeed where they failed before is in these efforts around the country to strip independent elections officials of their responsibilities and give them over to partisan legislatures and boards or to install their own people as Trump is trying to do.”

Indeed, Trump and his allies have backed partisan election investigations around the country and launched a coordinated effort to support more restrictive voting laws and install officials who support the former president in positions overseeing local elections. Schiff also blames conservative media for promoting these narratives and for cheering far right foreign leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has cultivated Republican allies in Washington and earned admiring coverage from Fox News host Tucker Carlson. 

“They’re championing the dictatorial model and I think it’s phenomenally dangerous,” Schiff says  of Orban’s allies in the GOP, adding, “A disturbing number of Americans are hearing the siren song of dictatorship and it’s sounding good to them.” 

Faced with these threats, Schiff says the January 6th select committee is “determined to do everything we can do and use every tool that we have to get answers.” 

While Schiff says he cannot discuss the committee’s findings due to the ongoing investigation, he noted “what’s already in the public record to me is absolutely shocking.” Specifically, Schiff points to recent evidence that emerged through a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation showing Trump had “a willing partner” inside the Justice Department to go along with his efforts to overturn his election loss to Biden. According to a report from the Senate investigation that was released earlier this month, Trump’s effort to install his ally as the attorney general was thwarted after a tense standoff with a handful of other officials who threatened to resign. 

The January 6th committee has already signaled its willingness to make criminal contempt referrals against Trump allies who try to dodge its subpoenas. And Schiff suggests this is due to a key difference that could make this far more aggressive than the Russia investigation and other probes that took place while Trump was in power.

“Then, we had a Justice Department run by Bill Barr that was an impediment and an administration that would fight every step of the way,” Schiff says. “It’s a different world now. We don’t have a Trump crony running the Justice Department that runs interference and behaves like Donald Trump’s personal criminal defense.” 

In another notable contrast from the Trump era, Biden’s White House has also indicated it plans to cooperate with the committee’s records requests. 

Overall, while Schiff believes America’s democracy is in a perilous position, he points to one hopeful note. Schiff believes our checks and balances are sufficient to stand up to the threat of authoritarianism — as long as his colleagues in Congress are willing to use them. 

“Ultimately, and this is a running theme throughout the book, there’s no flaw in the impeachment clause. It’s perfectly well structured. There’s no flaw in the Constitution,” Schiff says. “But if the people who are meant to enforce it, men and women in the Congress, don’t animate those provisions with conscience and observe the spirit of those provisions, then democracy is going to founder in our times.”  

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