Adam Schiff frames the stakes: ‘authoritarianism versus democracy’

     U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff speaks at a House Intelligence Committee hearing (PBS)

    U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff speaks at a House Intelligence Committee hearing (PBS)

    In case you haven’t noticed, the Democrats have been starved for leaders. But they got one this week, at the House Intelligence hearing, when Adam Schiff detailed the Trump-Russia connection with his characteristic low-key concision.

    If you’ve never heard of Schiff, a 16-year California congressman and national security specialist, just watch his opening statement. That should be enough to make him a household name, at least in households populated by people with functioning intellects. I’m not touting Schiff as a future presidential candidate or anything that dramatic; this isn’t about personal ambition. This is about doing one’s homework. This is about weighing in on the most fundamental crisis of our time, and doing it without histrionics. He framed the stakes:

    “If we do not do our best to understand how the Russians accomplished this unprecedented attack on our democracy and what we need to do to protect ourselves in the future, we will have only ourselves to blame … We are engaged in a new war of ideas, not communism versus capitalism, but authoritarianism versus democracy and representative government. And in this struggle, our adversary sees our political process as a legitimate field of battle.”

    And crucial to this new war, as it was waged in 2016, was whether, or to what extent, the Russians got aid and comfort from the Trump campaign. That’s what the FBI is investigating. That’s what the House intel committee, run by Republicans, is supposedly set to investigate. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, framed those stakes as well:

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    “If the Trump campaign, or anybody associated with it, aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history.”

    Is there preponderance of proof? Arguably, not yet. But Schiff marshalled the wealth of known evidence — the unclassified evidence, “drawn from public sources alone” — and meticulously connected the dots. Remember, he’s a former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted a Russian espionage case in front of a federal jury. Jurors like it when prosecutors connect the dots. So do we.

    For instance (and this is just a small taste of what Schiff articulated):

    “In early July, Carter Page, someone candidate Trump identified as one of his national security advisors, travels to Moscow on a trip approved by the Trump campaign. While in Moscow, he gives a speech critical of the United States and other western countries for what he believes is a hypocritical focus on democratization and efforts to fight corruption.

    “According to Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who is reportedly held in high regard by U.S. Intelligence, Russian sources tell him that Page has also had a secret meeting with Igor Sechin, CEO of Russian gas giant Rosneft. Sechin is reported to be a former KGB agent and close friend of Putin’s. According to Steele’s Russian sources, Page is offered brokerage fees by Sechin on a deal involving a 19 percent share of the company. According to Reuters, the sale of a 19.5 percent share in Rosneft later takes place, with unknown purchasers and unknown brokerage fees.

    “Also, according to Steele’s Russian sources, the Trump campaign is offered documents damaging to Hillary Clinton, which the Russians would publish through an outlet that gives them deniability, like Wikileaks. The hacked documents would be in exchange for a Trump administration policy that de-emphasizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and instead focuses on criticizing NATO countries for not paying their fare share policies – which, even as recently as the president’s meeting last week with Angela Merkel, have now presciently come to pass.

    “In the middle of July, Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign manager and someone who was long on the payroll of pro-Russian Ukrainian interests, attends the Republican party convention. Carter Page, back from Moscow, also attends the convention. According to Steele, it was Manafort who chose Page to serve as a go-between for the Trump campaign and Russian interests. Ambassador Kislyak, who presides over a Russian embassy in which diplomatic personnel would later be expelled as likely spies, also attends the Republican Party convention and meets with Carter Page and additional Trump advisors J.D. Gordon and Walid Phares. It was J.D. Gordon who approved Page’s trip to Moscow. Ambassador Kislyak also meets with Trump campaign national security chair and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions would later deny meeting with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation hearing.”

    By the way, Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House intel committee (Schiff’s counterpart), told the press yesterday that he has never heard of Carter Page. In case you were wondering whether the Republicans are thirsting to get to the bottom of things, Nunes just gave you the answer.

    Schiff, by contrast, articulated what we know about Trump characters like Page, and Roger Stone (who has confirmed his communications with a Russia-allied hacker), and Michael Flynn (who was paid by Russia’s propaganda network, RT; who lied about his back-channel chats with Russian ambassador Kislyak). And then, after assembling the small pieces, Schiff gave us the big picture. He didn’t scream “Lock ‘ em up.” He simply made the case for looking further:

    “Now, is it possible that the removal of the (tough on Russia) Ukraine provision from the GOP platform was a coincidence?

    “Is it a coincidence that Jeff Sessions failed to tell the Senate about his meetings with the Russian ambassador, not only at the convention, but a more private meeting in his office and at a time when the U.S. election was under attack by the Russians?

    “Is it a coincidence that Michael Flynn would lie about a conversation he had with the same Russian ambassador Kislyak about the most pressing issue facing both countries at the time they spoke — the U.S. imposition of sanctions over Russian hacking of our election designed to help Donald Trump?

    “Is it a coincidence that the Russian gas company Rosneft sold a 19 percent share after former British intelligence officer Steele was told by Russian sources that Carter Page was offered fees on a deal of just that size?

    “Is it a coincidence that Steele’s Russian sources also affirmed that Russia had stolen documents hurtful to Secretary Clinton, [documents] that it would utilize in exchange for pro-Russian policies that would later come to pass?

    “Is it a coincidence that Roger Stone predicted that [Clinton advisor] John Podesta would be the victim of a Russian hack and have his private emails published, and did so even before Mr. Podesta himself was fully aware that his private emails would be exposed?

    “Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated, and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians used the same techniques to corrupt U.S. persons that they have employed in Europe and elsewhere.

    “We simply don’t know, not yet, and we owe it to the country to find out.”

    By the way, here’s your ironic fun fact of the day: Adam Schiff won his congressional seat by defeating a Republican incumbent named James Rogan. I doubt Rogan’s name rings a bell, but he was nationally known in 2000 — for his high-profile role in the House Republican crusade to impeach Bill Clinton. But alas, the voters in his district said it was stupid to impeach a president for lying about sex. Exit Rogan, enter Schiff.

    Decide for yourself whether Schiff’s mission is more substantive.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.





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