When Adam Schiff was a young assistant U.S. attorney living in Los Angeles, he did what everyone does when they move to Hollywood. He wrote a screenplay.
He spent hours at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, reading the scripts for “Silence of the Lambs” and “Witness” in the library (it was the ’90s). He leaned on his courtroom experience, thinking back on snippets of dialogue during trials as he typed out a crime thriller. The prosecutor was the hero, naturally. He called it “Minotaur,” and, if you ask Schiff, it was pretty good.
“I got an offer of an option from Nick Wechsler,” Schiff said, leaning back in a leather chair inside his Capitol Hill office late last month. “He produced ‘The Player,’ remember that movie with Tim Robbins?”
Schiff turned down the offer, he said. He doesn’t remember it being a huge sum of money, and anyway, he was getting into a different kind of storytelling business: politics.
In some ways, he’s become the chief storyteller of this drama-filled political moment. Schiff is the head of the House Intelligence Committee and leader of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry of President Trump. He’s in charge of calling witnesses, taking depositions and subpoenaing documents. More than that, it’s his job to stitch it all together into a believable, easy-to-follow narrative. Imagine the pitch meeting: It’s like “The Manchurian Candidate,” except the president has heel spurs. It’s “The Godfather” meets “Borat .”
“I don’t know how anybody can write things more absurd than real life these days,” Schiff, 59, said, a smile lifting the puffier-than-usual bags under his eyes. It was the tail end of a particularly busy week. It started with the blockbuster testimony by diplomat William B. Taylor, who said Trump had planned to withhold military aid to Ukraine until the country publicly declared its intention to launch investigations that might help him win reelection.
The next day, several dozen Republicans stormed one of the depositions Schiff was holding in a secure location. Wielding cellphones and chanting “Let us in,” the Trump loyalists hoped their performance would paint the California congressman’s proceedings as a sham.
In their telling, Schiff is an unreliable narrator: He’s “hiding” testimony from the public, they say, he “lied” about whether his committee had been in contact with the whistleblower who set the impeachment inquiry in motion, and he fictionalized Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — punching it up like a screenplay and reading his version as an opening statement at a congressional hearing.
“I’m only going to say this seven times, so you better listen good,” Schiff deadpannedduring that performance, painting Trump as a mobster. “I want you to dig up dirt on my political opponent, understand? Lots of it.”
Republicans didn’t like the rewrite, and used the occasion to try to censure Schiff on the House floor. The move was, of course, rebuffed by Democrats, who have his back from leadership all the way down to the newest, most liberal members of the House.
“It’s the same exact thing Republicans do to me,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), about the attempt to vilify Schiff. “It’s their only ploy.” (It’s true that Republicans have not given up on this move. This week, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida filed an ethics complaint against Schiff, citing the opening statement as the first supposed violation).
Even some of Schiff’s colleagues on the committee have wondered, quietly, if the “parody” was a misstep.
“In a moment where the facts are as absolutely clear, gilding the lily was not necessary,” said a Democrat on the committee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
Bad reviews notwithstanding, Schiff is going to have ample opportunities for a second act. This Thursday, amid Republican complaints about their closed-door sessions, the House voted to hand the lead role in the impeachment inquiry to Schiff, giving him the chance to move his questioning back onto a public stage.
“It’s a new phase,” Schiff said. “In the private depositions, you’re trying to find what you don’t know. In the public setting, you’re trying to tell the story of what you do know.”
His real-life script
Political storytelling is often more like writing a movie script than laying out an exhaustive account of known knowns and known unknowns. Some Democrats thought the report written by the team led by Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, would be a blockbuster — if not on the page, then in a televised hearing. But audiences from some key demos never tuned in, and many who did were disappointed by the performance of the aging actor.
Trump has a different approach — telling the same stories over and over, without concern for fact over fiction, his rallies like cult-classic reruns to his devoted fans. They seem to rave over anything that pans Trump’s opponents.
If Schiff has regrets about the opening statement, he doesn’t show them. He saw Trump’s call with Zelensky as a “classic organized crime shakedown,” so he called it that. It’s how he’s always done things, using plain language so an audience or a jury can understand. This isn’t his first trial or even his first impeachment.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985, Schiff took a job as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. He gained some national attention for prosecuting the first FBI agent ever indicted on a charge of espionage — Richard Miller — who shared classified documents with the Russians in a sex-for-secrets case that also involved cash and gold.
In 1995, Schiff married his wife, Eve, (yes, really, Adam and Eve) and came to Congress in 2001, having beat incumbent Republican congressman James Rogan, who had himself been one of the 13 House managers during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton (sometimes even a real-life script can be on the nose).
In 2008, Schiff was walking through the Rayburn office building when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) grabbed him by the arm for a chat. The House Intelligence Committee was investigating the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes, she said, and she was looking for someone with his background to join them. Would he think about it?
“I said I didn’t need to think it over,” Schiff recalled. “I’d love to.”
Over the years, Schiff has become a close ally of Pelosi’s, someone she is counting on to run a fair process and to help Democrats win over voters skeptical of impeachment. It helps that he’s run one before.
In 2010, Schiff led the impeachment of G. Thomas Porteous Jr., a district judge from eastern Louisiana accused of falsifying financial reports and taking cash favors from lawyers who had dealings in his court.
“Trying a case is like putting on a play,” said Alan Baron, who served as the special counsel, acting as Schiff’s right-hand man on the Porteous case. “You have the characters, the props, an opening and closing act. And Adam was great at all of that.”
Porteous was impeached, and convicted in the Senate, 96-0 on the first count. It was the first time the Senate had expelled a federal judge in more than two decades.
That impeachment and trial took place on a much smaller stage (its conclusion was covered on page 27 of the New York Times). Republicans at that time, Schiff said, didn’t need to show real political courage to vote to convict. There was no pressure against them, no threat that a president with a massive following might retaliate against those who voted to convict.
The rising action
Trump has an audience and he’s been working on a script of his own; one with Schiff cast as the villain: a “Liddle,” “Shifty” man with a “pencil neck.”
“The only crimes in the Impeachment Hoax were committed by Shifty Adam Schiff, when he totally made up my phone conversation with the Ukrainian President and read it to Congress,” Trump tweeted this week. “Schiff should be Impeached, and worse!”
Did Schiff see the latest attack? Unclear.
“I’ve never subscribed to his tweets, so they’re sent to me by staff,” he said. They don’t send them all, he said; there are far too many.
“But I do get all the ones where he is attacking me,” Schiff said. He shot a look to his communications director, Patrick Boland, who sat at a nearby table shaking his head.
“No?” Schiff said. “I don’t even get all the ones where he’s attacking me . . .”
But Schiff would have to be blind to miss all the criticism coming from the right. Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) has blasted him for running a “Soviet-style process” (a term that has been echoed by many of his colleagues). The Washington Examiner, a conservative magazine, filled newsstands on the Hill with a bug-eyed caricature of Schiff alongside the headline “The Worst Man for the Job.” Schiff has long been known as something of a moderate within the Democratic caucus — he was on the slow side to call for the impeachment inquiry and in the past was known to work well with Republicans on his committees. But you wouldn’t know it listening to Republicans today.
“They gave it to Schiff because he’s more willing to lie,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at a summit hosted by the Examiner.
It used to be, Schiff said, that he was good at compartmentalizing, at leaving what happened in the courtroom behind. But now it seems the court of public opinion follows him everywhere he goes.
He tells the story of being recognized in public, just as he was becoming a household name, and turning to his daughter, then a college senior, in shock.
“Well, you know, Dad,” she said to him. “It’s the pencil neck.”
Schiff has a sense of humor that tends toward dad jokes and his favorite movie “The Big Lebowski,” he and uses it to help laugh a lot of this stuff off. But it’s not always funny.
“Last time we hung out he was being guarded by security,” said David McMillan, a longtime friend of Schiff’s and screenwriter in Los Angeles. “It feels very real and very dangerous. This is not a movie.”
McMillan was a child when he met Schiff. The two were paired in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Los Angeles. McMillan remembers their first time hanging out, getting blasted by waves on Venice Beach and nicknaming themselves “the Survivors,” as if they were the heroes of their own courageous tale. It was Schiff who inspired him to get into the screenwriting business.
“He was the first person I ever knew who wrote a screenplay,” McMillan said of his former mentor.
Over the years, McMillan has read Schiff’s work and found it impressive. There was the Holocaust-era screenplay the congressman wrote, called “Remnant.” There was “Minotaur,” the courtroom drama with this mysterious plot: While a jury deliberates a gruesome murder, and with the suspect locked away, someone commits an identical crime. And when Schiff was getting deeper and deeper into the world of intelligence in Congress, he worked on a spy thriller.
“It was kind of like Jason Bourne,” McMillan said. “He called it “A Man Called Seven.” He’s a really great writer.” (Why that title? “Well, if I told you, I’d give away the story,” Schiff said).
That was back when Schiff had time to write for fun. He was part of a congressional writers’ caucus started by his best friend on the Hill, former congressman Steve Israel (N.Y.). They’d work together in coffee shops, and bounce ideas off each other. Israel liked it so much that he quit Congress to pursue writing full time, and is working on a spy novel. He says he still asks Schiff for writing advice.
“I haven’t written a word since Trump became president,” Schiff said. Perhaps he’s made the transition from narrator to protagonist, a leading man — though his on-screen energy is more Mister Rogers than James Bond.
“I do have people tell me from time to time that they’re counting on me to save the republic,” he said. “And I always have the same response, which is, ‘Uh, no pressure there!’ ”
Around the office, Schiff has been known to make jokes about how, if he really were a great writer and had enjoyed a little more success with Hollywood, he wouldn’t even be in Congress today. A few years back, some of Schiff’s staffers who wanted to judge the work for themselves found a copy of “Minotaur.” One reviewer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to critique the boss’s work, put it this way: It was good, perhaps a little derivative of the Morgan Freeman/Brad Pitt thriller “Seven,” while lacking some of its edge.
“There’s a little piece of me that thinks if he got the call from a studio and they said, ‘We read your screenplay, we want to make it,’ he’d say, ‘Well ‘I’m out,’ ” said an aide who works closely with Schiff.
Schiff denies this, calling it nothing more than a hobby. Remember, he pointed out, it was he who turned down the offer to have his screenplay optioned, choosing instead to focus on a state senate campaign that started his political career. He has no regrets about that. But what about the spurned producer who had offered to option the script?
When reached for comment about “Minotaur,” Nick Wechsler said he had no recollection of any offer on any movie involving Schiff.
“I’ve been racking my brain, I just don’t know what this is,” he said. “There’s a whiff of something in my brain, some molecules of memory. But I just can’t remember this.”
Still, the congressman might have a future in pictures. Wechsler says he’s become a “big fan” of Schiff’s current work, And if the congressman were to approach him today about a project?
“Yes,” Wechsler said, “I would be receptive.”
Considering the material he’s working with, it might have to be a documentary.
This piece was originally published in the Washington Post.