Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep interviews House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill about the impeachment inquiry of President Trump.
Steve Inskeep: I want to begin this interview the same place we began our last conversation. I began last time — before the hearings — by noting that the Constitution allows for impeachment and removal in cases of bribery, treason or high crimes and misdemeanors. We asked then, "What do you see that would fit that definition?" You gave some idea but said you're also reserving judgment. Now, what do you see?
Rep. Adam Schiff: Well, I think our report shows abundant evidence, really overwhelming evidence, that the president used the power of his office, conditioned official acts — a White House meeting and hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to a nation at war — in exchange for things of value to him: political favors. Two investigations he thought would help his reelection campaign: one into Joe Biden, the other into this debunked theory, this Russian-pushed narrative, that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in our last election.
You've said that, but your report says the president personally solicited these investigations, which, of course, is shown by his own phone call. But have you proven with this testimony that the president personally ordered a quid pro quo, personally ordered that, that, that investigation be tied to military aid to Ukraine and a White House meeting?
Yes. And indeed, the president's own people have said as much. Ambassador Sondland, who was the point person — this megadonor to the president's inauguration, who was given this broad portfolio that covered Ukraine — acknowledged that there was a clear quid pro quo, both as to the White House meeting and also he came to understand as to the military assistance. The —
But you said "presumed." That's a word that Republicans have leaned on: "He presumed there was a quid pro quo."
Well, he also said that following his conversation with President Trump, in which the president said Zelenskiy had to go to a mic and announce these investigations, they would be at a stalemate unless the president did, meaning the aid would not be released. That was his understanding before his conversation with the president. That was his understanding after the conversation with the president. And let's not forget, the president's own chief of staff confirmed what Sondland said when he acknowledged in a press conference that, yes, they withheld the aid in order to get this political investigation and we ought to just get used to it. That's what they do. That there's going to be politics in foreign policy. Well, that's not what America does.
Do you still think this fits the definition of bribery, which is what you said in our last conversation?
Bribery, both in terms — and most importantly in terms of what the Founders had in mind — that is conditioning an official act for something of value. I think this certainly meets that definition, but it won't be for me to decide whether we ought to go forward, even if there is ample proof of an impeachable offense. That will ultimately be a decision for our caucus and our leadership in the Judiciary Committee. But I don't think there's any question that the uncontested facts show this president solicited a bribe, effectively solicited something of value (these political investigations) and offered official acts (a meeting, $400 million of military aid) in order to get those political favors. That is exactly what the Founders had in mind when they talked about bribery as a breach of the public trust to obtain something of value, particularly from a foreign power.
OK, it's not up to you in that it moves on to another committee, but you're a significant voice. Do these offenses amount to impeachable offenses?
Well, I'm going to make this decision, I think, jointly with our caucus. This ought to be a decision that is made, given the gravity of the situation, by all of us collectively and with an eye towards what's best for the country. But I don't think there's any question that, number one, we have proved this misconduct, that it really is uncontested. But number two, that this was what the Founders had in mind when they provided for a remedy for presidential misconduct. They understood it might be necessary to remove a president before the expiration of their term if they betrayed the public trust. And it's hard to imagine a clearer illustration of a betrayal of the public trust than a president that withholds aid from an ally, that's important for our own national security, in order to get a political favor, in order to secure interference in our own election, and in so doing not only violates our own national security but also the integrity of our elections.
What are your thoughts about the wisdom, or unwisdom, of adding other charges to a possible list of articles of impeachment? Looking into the Mueller report, looking into matters relating to Russian interference in the 2016 election, looking into allegations of obstruction in that matter?
The way I see the process working is we'll submit our report later this evening to the Judiciary Committee. They will also consider the Mueller report and the evidence of obstruction of justice. They will also consider, you know, frankly, something also very serious that is outlined in our report that goes beyond the president's Ukraine misconduct, and that is his obstruction of Congress.
It is difficult to imagine a more ironclad case of obstruction of Congress than this one, where the president instructed all of his departments to refuse lawful subpoenas, not turn over a single document. We didn't get any documents from the State Department, from the Office of Management and Budget, which withheld the aid from the White House itself, from the Department of Energy, from the Department of Defense. The prescription that witnesses defy subpoenas and not appear. It's hard to imagine a more wholesale obstruction of Congress.
And I would say this to my Republican colleagues: If they're prepared to countenance this, they must be willing to accept the fact that when there's a Democratic president that they believe is engaged in any kind of misconduct, they will be powerless to find out. Because that president will simply fall back on this example and say, "Donald Trump didn't need to turn over any materials. Donald Trump was able to defy subpoenas. The Congress' power of oversight is really a power in theory only." And that will fundamentally alter the balance of power, and it will make future corruption and malfeasance that much more likely.
Given that you have laid out these facts, why do you think public opinion remains so divided? It moved in your direction for a while, but it remains deeply divided.
Well, it moved very substantially in the direction of the impeachment inquiry and ultimately impeachment itself. When we had this conversation a couple of months ago, a very strong majority of the country was against even doing an impeachment inquiry. That changed. Now, a very strong majority not only supports the investigation we've been doing, but a bare majority also thinks that he should be impeached and removed from office —
Or a plurality depending on the poll. Maybe less than 50 percent. But go on.
But that is a very substantial change from a few months ago. And I think it's a function of the public understanding the magnitude of this president's misconduct.
Now, one of the other things that we have to contend with, and I think you could see this in the way the members of Congress and the members of our committee reacted to the witness testimony, it was as if they were seeing two different hearings. That we are seeing what the Founders also were concerned about. Beyond their concerns about an unfit person taking the office of the presidency, they were also concerned about factionalism, about factions, the problem of an excess of what we would call today "partisanship." And here we have a real confrontation between a power the Founders gave to remove an unethical president, who violates the public trust, and an excess of factionalism where one party has become a cult of the person of the president and may be unwilling to do its constitutional duty. This puts to the test whether the framework the Founders established is up to the task, where you have a party that is essentially willing to be completely co-opted by the person of the president.
I want to note some of the polling that you just cited. There are very strong majorities supporting an investigation, as you said. There have been big majorities saying the president did something wrong. Much smaller numbers saying the president should be impeached and removed, although there is strong support for that, but much smaller. Would censuring the president — voting to criticize him without trying to remove him from office — be something that would be more in line with public opinion on this?
I'm not a fan of the idea of censure. I think we have to decide whether the mechanism that the Founders provided ought to be utilized or it should not be utilized. And one of the things that I think we have to keep in mind in that debate that we're about to have is the fact this president will do it again. He has made that abundantly clear. The president invited the Russians to interfere in 2016, and they did. He sought to use the power of his office to get the Ukrainians to interfere in 2020. And even in the midst of the impeachment inquiry was on the White House lawn saying that, yes, Ukraine should investigate the Bidens. And what's more, so should China. This is a president who is not chastened by the experience of the catastrophe of Russian intervention in our last election and is willfully seeking further intervention in the next election. And I think we need to consider: What's the remedy for that? Or are we prepared to accept, as Mick Mulvaney suggested, that we should just get used to it? We should get used to a certain level of corruption in the office of the presidency that affects our own election integrity.
You talked about the dangers of faction and the way that Republicans have described the evidence completely differently than you have. But I want to focus on one particular Republican: Will Hurd of Texas. Former CIA officer. He's retiring, doesn't have to worry about reelection, has also recognized the president did something wrong, but still said that he saw no evidence of bribery or impeachable conduct. What does it say when you are unable even to bring over a Republican that we would describe like that?
Well, in the case of Will Hurd, he's also said he wants to run for president. And I think that's really all you need to know about where he's coming from. Those of us that have watched Will Hurd, and been disappointed by Will Hurd, we're not surprised at all by what he said during the hearing. Disappointed, certainly. Surprised? Really not at all. But I think —
You think he's taking counsel of his ambitions. He's keeping his options open.
Well, he has made his ambitions plain. And sadly, I think for many in the Republican Party, there is a tremendous fear of antagonizing the Trump base and what that will mean for those who are running for reelection, in terms of a primary challenge. For those like Will Hurd that have a higher ambition, whether they can even be viable if they alienate the Trump base. And, you know, sadly, I think that is guiding the thinking of many of my colleagues in the GOP, when I think what they really need to do is think about their oath and their duty to the Constitution. Otherwise, why are they even here? If at a time when our democracy is deeply at risk they're not willing to do what's necessary to protect it.
You acknowledged in our last interview that public opinion is important here. Why not take more time to gather more evidence and work to build more public opinion for your side before moving ahead to the Judiciary Committee and the next step, as you're now doing?
For a couple of reasons. The first is that there is a real and proximate threat to our next election. This is not something that we can simply defer indefinitely. And of course, those witnesses that we would want to bring in for additional evidence have made it very clear they will tie us up in courts for months and months and months — potentially even beyond the next election — in which case the damage will be done if the president is free to continue inviting foreign interference in that very election. So —
But can I just note: This scheme, as you describe it in your report, was foiled. It was exposed. It's going to be hard to get that done again. Doesn't it give you more time?
Well, it really doesn't, though, for two reasons. First, as Mr. Holmes testified — and this, again, is the diplomat in our Ukraine embassy.
Ukraine still is under pressure. Ukraine still hasn't gotten a meeting of the White House. Ukraine is still dependent on U.S. military assistance. Ukraine is still hearing President Trump on the White House lawn saying, "Yes, they should do, Zelenskiy should do this investigation of my opponent." China is listening to the president when he invites China to interfere in his affairs. And what's more, Vladimir Putin is listening as Donald Trump, once again, gives Russia cover in terms of its interference in our last election and potentially cover if they interfere in our next election. And at the same time, the president's actions continue to undermine an ally that is at war with Russia. So it's not as if these problems have gone away. It's not as if the risk of the next election has gone away or can merely be postponed indefinitely.
Did your timetable allow the president's legal strategy to work? He's refused everything. He's forced you to go to court. He seems to be losing in court, on his way to losing in court. But you're not going to wait for him to lose. You're moving ahead.
Well, the strategy ultimately has not worked because we were able to move ahead. We're able to build a case without the documents from all of these agencies.
So through several very courageous public servants who stepped forward in defiance of the president's orders and testified, we're able to build an overwhelming case of his misconduct and equally make a case that this president has obstructed Congress in a way and to a degree that President Nixon never did. This president's obstruction has been wholesale, complete and across the board. If there was ever a case to be built for obstruction of Congress, this is it. And Congress will now have to decide: Are we prepared to accept that oversight is at the whim and the will of the executive, even when it involves misconduct by the executive? Or do we intend to, as the Founders imagined, insist that we be able to conduct our oversight function as a necessary corollary to weeding out corruption and to our legislative responsibilities?
The last time we talked, Mr. Chairman, I asked you about the prospect of an impeachment that failed in the Senate — the president is acquitted in the Senate. And you looked at it two different ways. You said that may still be valuable because it is a powerful sanction by the House against the president, or it may be dangerous because the president will then feel free to do even more. But you didn't say which way you were leaning. What are you thinking now?
Well, what I'm thinking now is the president of the United States got on the phone with his Ukrainian counterpart the day after Bob Mueller testified. The day after Donald Trump believed that the Mueller investigation was over, he was back on the phone seeking foreign interference yet again in the U.S. presidential election. That tells me this president believes that he is above the law. And I think for an unethical president to believe they're above the law is an extraordinarily dangerous thing for the country. And I also believe that the failure of our Republican colleagues, if it comes to that, to do their constitutional duty, does not relieve us of our obligation to do our duty. And so I think we figure out what's right in terms of our ethical responsibilities and our constitutional oath, and we let the consequences fall where they may.
But you have raised the scenario that the president might be even more unbound if you do the most serious thing that you can to him and he still walks away and is still president.
Well, I would just say this. We've seen the results already of not moving forward with even an impeachment inquiry, in the case of the president's solicitation of Russian interference in the last election. That was, that it would happen again — and it did happen again. So we've been down that path. The question is, are we gonna learn from that and go down that road again, only to see this president once again seek foreign intervention, once again engage in misconduct related to foreign intervention? That's what we have to weigh. And —
Is this your only shot? Meaning, if you gather more evidence, if more things happen, could you imagine doing another impeachment inquiry, continuing this impeachment inquiry?
I honestly do not want to think beyond the work we're doing at the moment and the decision that we have ahead of us. But I will say this: Even as we transmit this report to the Judiciary Committee, we continue to learn on a daily basis of new facts incriminating the president and that add further context to this scheme. Just today, for example, it was publicly reported that the deputy foreign minister in Ukraine was aware as early as late July that the military aid was being withheld or there was a problem with the military aid. That is consistent with testimony we've had, but is further corroboration that, yes, Ukraine understood the leverage the president was using. Now, of course, that became abundantly clear when it was public, but this additional acknowledgment by a high Ukrainian official that, yes, they knew military aid was being withheld only underscores the leverage the president was applying. And just how deeply unethical and injurious it was to our national security as well as Ukraine's.
One other thing, Mr. Chairman: Some people have noted a bit of your own personal history that there was a Republican congressman in the '90s named Jim Rogan, who was an impeachment manager in Bill Clinton's impeachment, and he was defeated for reelection by you, if I'm not mistaken, in 2000, and said afterward it was his work on impeachment that defeated him. What lesson, if any, do you see in that bit of history that is relevant to now?
Well, certainly impeaching a president over an affair is a big mistake. That's the mistake my predecessor made. A president who uses the power of his office to coerce an ally, to interfere in the next presidential election by withholding military assistance and withholding White House meetings — that is a very different order of magnitude, a very different animal. That's what I would take from that experience.
Meaning that this impeachment, you feel, is on a stronger foundation. But do you think about the political danger —
Well, I think that puts it very mildly. I think this is a very different case.
But this is my question, really. You're heading into an election year. You would rather politics not inform this process — electoral politics not inform this process. But you seem to feel that it is very important that this president be defeated in 2020. Do you worry about the prospect of strengthening him politically for 2020 by impeaching him and not removing him?
I have not tried to consider whether this helps or hurts the president or his opponent in the 2020 election. I just don't think that's my job, my responsibility or that ought to be the consideration here. So there are, I think, bright political commentator minds that are making those judgments. My own feeling is, we ought to figure out what's best for the country, we ought to figure out what the Constitution has to say about this. And we have to decide for ourselves: Are we prepared to accept this kind of misconduct in the president of the United States? Because if we are, we can expect there's going to be a lot more of it.
But if you somehow helped him get reelected, would that be worth it?
I will leave that to historians to decide. What I'm going to focus on now and in the future is what's the right thing to do here.
Mr. Chairman, thanks so much.
I want to follow up very briefly on one thing that you mentioned in passing. You said that the Mueller report will be considered as the Judiciary Committee goes through its work. Can you elaborate on that at all? What's on the table?
Well, we will submit our report to the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee already has the Mueller report. It may get further information from other committees about other potential constitutional violations of the president involving emoluments or other issues. It will be ultimately for the Judiciary Committee, in consultation with our caucus and our leadership, to decide what comes out of that. Whether there are articles at all, and if there are articles, whether it deals, they deal with Ukraine, obstruction of Congress, obstruction of justice or other issues that will be made — those decisions will be made as a body.
So your report is narrow. Judiciary could be broader. Bottom line.
Well, I don't know that I would describe it as broader, but what I am saying is that the two issues that we are referring to Judiciary are the president's Ukraine misconduct and his obstruction of Congress. They may very well also consider obstruction of justice involving the Mueller investigation, as well as other issues brought to their attention by other committees.