Adam Schiff. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ANDREW HARRER
Adam Schiff. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ANDREW HARRER

Washington — Adam Schiff has emerged in less than a week as the standard-bearer for the Democrats’ impeachment effort, putting him squarely in President Donald Trump’s crosshairs and leaving him with little margin for error.

In his first days in the role, Schiff has been challenged head-on by the president and his allies. The house intelligence chair’s plans for a quick series of hearings into whether Trump put pressure on Ukraine to help investigate a political rival ran into immediate obstacles.

Secretary of state Michael Pompeo rejected plans by Schiff’s committee and two other panels to get testimony this week and next from state department employees. Trump’s former special Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, the former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and the intelligence community’s inspector-general are still scheduled to give depositions.

On Tuesday night, Schiff and two other committee chairs sent a letter to the state department warning that officials who obstructed a congressional inquiry could face criminal charges and the withholding of their salaries.

The lead in the inquiry fell to Schiff after Democrats’ expectations that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference would form a basis for impeachment action led by house judiciary chair Jerrold Nadler fell short. A complaint from an intelligence community whistle-blower about Trump’s interaction with Ukraine’s leader shifted jurisdiction to Schiff’s committee.

Schiff at the outset opened himself to attacks from Trump and his allies by delivering an exaggerated parody of Trump’s July 25 conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, which he asserted sounded like a Mafia boss running “a classic organised crime shakedown”.

Opening misstep

Republicans joined Trump in assailing the performance, which occurred at a hearing last week with acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire, as inappropriate and misleading. Schiff argued he was making a point about the tone of the call, but Republicans said it showed he cannot act as a neutral investigator.

“It is clear Democrats have decided to place the most biased guy they have in the job of running their investigation,” said Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who sits on two of the house committees involved in the impeachment inquiry, oversight and judiciary.

Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-ranking Republican in the house, said Schiff “has a record of making baseless allegations”, and his parody “made a mockery of the house intelligence committee’s grave responsibility”.

It was an opening stumble by Schiff that hits at the heart of what Democrats most need as they dive into the impeachment inquiry. Though polls have shown an uptick in public support for the inquiry since the whistle-blower’s complaint about Trump’s Ukraine call surfaced, perceptions of partisanship or unfairness in the process could undermine attempts to build wide backing for impeachment.

Pelosi ally

Schiff, 59, is a long-time ally of house speaker Nancy Pelosi from California and a former federal prosecutor. He was elected to Congress by defeating James Rogan, a manager of the impeachment of president Bill Clinton.

He has a flair for the dramatic and an acerbic sense of humour that he regularly deploys in front of television cameras. He also has demonstrated an ability to get under the skin of Trump, who has labelled him “Liddle Adam Schiff”.

Since Pelosi announced on September 24 that the house would begin an impeachment inquiry, Trump has kept up a steady stream of tweets aimed at Schiff, mentioning him 17 times, including suggesting he be arrested.

On Tuesday night, the tweets continued with Trump writing that the impeachment proceedings amounted to a “coup”.

Despite the administration’s objections, Democrats are expected to hear from several officials in the next days.

In addition to the state department inspector-general appearing on Wednesday, Volker is set to give closed-door testimony to three committees — intelligence, foreign affairs chaired by Eliot Engel of New York, and oversight led by Elijah Cummings of Maryland — on Thursday.

On Friday, Michael Atkinson, the US intelligence community’s inspector-general, is expected to give a closed-door briefing to the intelligence committee.

Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Kyiv from 2016 to May 2019, when Trump recalled her to the US, will appear on October 11, a house official said.

Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the intelligence panel, has questioned whether the committee should even be doing the inquiry. He said that if Democrats want to impeach the president “they need to go to the floor of the house and actually call for a vote”.

Pelosi and Democrats had expected the Mueller report would be the guide to any impeachment proceedings and when they took control of the house earlier in 2019 began a broader investigation of Trump. It involved several inquiries spread across six committees, with Nadler and judiciary taking the lead.

But dissatisfaction among some Democrats arose after a raucous judiciary hearing that Nadler led in September when former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski openly defied the panel as he was questioned.

Impeachment, streamlined

Pelosi’s plans last week to simplify impeachment and streamline the focus on Trump’s interactions with Ukraine was an abrupt change in strategy, though it still leaves various other committee inquiries, including into Trump’s finances, active.

“This is something that is totally within the bailiwick of intelligence, the president using taxpayer dollars to extort a foreign country to do something for him,” said Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell, a fellow Californian who is on Schiff’s panel and was an early backer of impeachment proceedings.

Bloomberg