Adam Schiff is headed to New Hampshire, and among Russia-watchers, it’s causing some distress.
The newly minted chairman of the House intelligence committee has promised to use his post to investigate President Donald Trump’s personal finances and Russia ties. As chairman, Schiff will be able to subpoena documents and witness testimony—potentially capable of unearthing information that could damage the Trump administration.
So when a trip to New Hampshire to headline the Politics and Eggs breakfast at Saint Anselm College appeared on the California Democrat’s schedule, supporters of his work in Congress were concerned that any 2020 aspirations, not matter how far-fetched, could jeopardize the integrity of his committee’s work.
Schiff, for his part, told The Daily Beast the trip is not in preparation for a White House bid.
“I’ve got a big day job to do and that is my focus and priority,” Schiff told The Daily Beast in a statement. “This is not an effort to test the presidential waters. But I do feel I have an opportunity to help shape our agenda and want to do what I can to sound the alarm about the rise of authoritarianism and the economic disruption that is driving it. I also think it’s important for party leaders to travel around the country, hear directly from voters, explain what we’re doing in Congress, and help my colleagues, and I’m going to continue to do that.”
Despite holding the post for less than a month, Schiff has long been reported to harbor ambitions for office higher than his House committee chairmanship.
His appearance at St. Anslem’s forum, a rite of passage for would-be presidential contenders, comes at a time when the Granite State is packed with Democratic politicians courting some of America’s most powerful primary voters—and could feed the perception that Schiff has White House dreams.
“It seems to me this is [Schiff’s] first misstep,” said Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer who considers Trump a pawn of the Kremlin.
“I don’t think that it jeopardizes the integrity of the investigation, but facts are often secondary to perceptions,” he continued. “It does expose Schiff to denunciation by Trump’s defenders or by Trump. So it is probably, it seems to me, unwise. I think the top obligation for a responsible American official now is the integrity of our democracy.”
And Jim Manley, formerly a top spokesperson for Sen. Harry Reid, needled Schiff for the trip.
“Not only are the optics lousy,” he said, “But forget the optics. The thing he really needs to focus on is getting to the bottom of what did the president know and when did he know it.”
Democrats are eager to do more digging. They have prepared for their investigation by courting money-laundering and forensic accounting experts, and members are jonesing to question mogul Erik Prince and Donald Trump Jr. Both men already faced a grilling from the committee, but members say new revelations from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe has generated concerns they may have lied. And on Wednesday, news broke that Schiff and House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters are preparing for a joint probe of Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank.
For Democrats, the stakes of these probes are sky-high. With that in mind, vocal outside supporters of the work said Schiff’s New Hampshire breakfast trip could be a gift to Trump as he seeks to discredit the inquiries.
“I don’t think going to New Hampshire will make Trump any less politically vindictive toward Schiff,” said Malcolm Nance, a Navy intelligence veteran. “However, his role on the HPSCI [House intelligence committee] is so valuable with an imminent investigation and possible prosecution of Trump in the offing, why ruin guaranteeing oneself an important place in American history as King-Breaker to fail to run at president? It makes no sense. If he is considering it he should reconsider, have a coffee, and get back to work saving American democracy.”
Many Democratic voters view Schiff’s work as just that. He became a cable news mainstay over the past two years, frequently appearing to tout his committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 race and to criticize his Republican counterpart, Devin Nunes (R-CA). When Nunes chaired the House intelligence committee, it devolved into a political slugfest, culminating in Republicans’ release of a misleading memo alleging gross wrongdoing by the FBI and senior Justice Department officials. Nunes shut down the committee’s work scrutinizing the 2016 race before Democrats were ready for it to close. Committee Republicans released a report saying they found no evidence the Trump team colluded with the Kremlin; and Democrats fired back by saying they hadn’t looked hard enough. And Democrats had a constant refrain through the whole fracas: Nunes, a former member of the Trump transition team, had weaponized the committee for political ends.
When the House flipped last November, Schiff and Nunes swapped roles. Schiff committed to restore bipartisan comity and mend the committee’s relationship with the intelligence community it oversees. And some say a White House bid could open him to the same criticism he leveled at Nunes.
Jamil Jaffer, a former Republican committee staffer who has criticized Nunes’ work as chairman, told The Daily Beast that the committee’s unique power and visibility mean Schiff is on perilous political territory.
“Once you’re in the mix for presidential politics, or even appear to be in the mix—he’s gone to South Carolina, he’s going to New Hampshire, which makes it appear that he’s at least considering joining the mix—that opens you up immediately to the criticism that no matter what you do, even if it’s for legitimate oversight, that you’re doing it for political purposes,” Jaffer said. “If Adam Schiff wants to run for president, he probably should have decided not to remain HPSCI chair given the current environment. He’s investigating the guy he would be running against.”
--Sam Stein contributed reporting.