The crowd was buzzing with Hollywood types — the actress Patricia Arquette, the producer Norman Lear — at a private film screening on Sunset Boulevard one recent Sunday afternoon. But here in liberal America, the biggest celebrity in the room was not someone who makes a living in what people call “the industry.”
It was Representative Adam B. Schiff, the strait-laced former federal prosecutor who was on the brink of prosecuting his biggest defendant yet: President Trump.
These are heady but perilous days for Mr. Schiff, the inscrutable and slightly nerdy chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who is leading the impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump. Adored by the left, reviled by the right, he has become a Rorschach test for American politics. Depending on one’s point of view, he is either going to save the republic, or destroy it.
Here in his home district, at the screening of “The Great Hack,” a film about misinformation in the 2016 election, Mr. Lear introduced Mr. Schiff as a “current American hero.” As the audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation, the congressman emerged from backstage in standard Washington uniform — navy blazer, white shirt, light blue tie — his manner as inoffensive as his attire.
“We thank them for their patriotism,” Mr. Schiff said somberly, praising whistle-blowers, including the anonymous one whose complaint against Mr. Trump prompted the impeachment inquiry, “and we hope others will follow their courageous example.”
Now Mr. Schiff, 59, is poised to take a much bigger stage, as his inquiry moves from a secure office suite in a Capitol Hill basement into nationally televised public hearings. He will make the case against Mr. Trump to a divided nation, in what amounts to an epic courtroom drama meant to unveil evidence of the president’s pressure campaign to enlist Ukraine to smear his political rivals — a moment that is bound to be must-watch TV.
At home in his district, which stretches from West Hollywood to Pasadena and north to the San Gabriel Mountains, Mr. Schiff is well acquainted with the celebrity lifestyle.
He lives with his wife, Eve (yes, Adam and Eve) and their two children in suburban Maryland, but they also have an apartment in Burbank, home to Walt Disney Studios. He favors vegan Chinese food, and drives an Audi whose license plate frame bears a line from the movie “The Big Lebowski” (“I don’t roll on Shabbos”), from which he can quote at length. He has dabbled at screenwriting, once drafting a script that featured a prosecutor as the hero. He tried stand-up comedy, too, during a fund-raiser at the Improv in Hollywood.
“He did a whole riff on being a nihilist,” said one of his best friends, the former congressman Steve Israel, who joined him onstage. “Basically, we got told to stick to our day jobs.”
But if Mr. Schiff has a sense of humor (his friends insist he does have a dry one), he rarely shows it in Washington, where he has carefully cultivated his image as the stylistic and substantive opposite of Mr. Trump: calm, measured, reserved and brainy.
He makes no secret of his disdain for the president, who refers to him as “Little Pencil Neck” or “Shifty Schiff” when he is not replacing the congressman’s surname with the expletive with which it rhymes. In an interview, he called Mr. Trump a “grave risk to our democracy,” who is conducting an “amoral presidency” and has debased his office with “infantile” insults.
“What comes through in the president’s comments and his tweets and his outrage and his anger toward me in particular, is this president feels he has a God-given right to abuse his office in any way he sees fit,” Mr. Schiff said.
Mr. Trump and his allies, sensing the threat posed by Mr. Schiff’s inquiry and divided over how to defend the president against a rush of damning testimony, have united in trying to undermine the congressman’s credibility. They sought unsuccessfully to have the House censure him and have accused him of running a “Soviet-style impeachment inquiry.” On Saturday, Mr. Trump proclaimed him “a corrupt politician” on Twitter.
Republicans who work side by side with him on the Intelligence Committee contend that he has changed as his star has risen alongside Mr. Trump’s. A figure they once saw as a serious and studious policy wonk they now describe in viscerally negative terms, as a liar and a hypocrite who will stop at nothing to oust a duly elected president.
Mr. Schiff has an “absolute maniacal focus on Donald Trump” said one committee Republican, Representative Michael Turner of Ohio, who accused Mr. Schiff of routinely lying to the press and the public about what happened in private interviews, and conducting the inquiry’s initial hearings out of public view so he and other Democrats could distort the findings.
And Mr. Schiff has let the publicity go to his head, Mr. Turner said: “Schiff finds the media intoxicating. And he is pretty much willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top of the media cycle.”
Mr. Schiff has made some missteps. His dramatized description of the president’s phone call with the leader of Ukraine drew attacks from the president and Republican lawmakers who said he was fabricating evidence — and surprised even a close friend, Alice Hill, who knows the congressman from their days as young prosecutors in Los Angeles.
“I was a bit surprised because he is reserved and not prone to overstatement, very careful with his words, very careful with the facts and keeping to the facts,” she said, adding, “It felt out of character.”
And Mr. Schiff’s assertion that he had not had any contact with the whistle-blower who incited the inquiry drew a “false” rating from The Washington Post; the whistle-blower had approached his panel for guidance before filing his complaint. Mr. Schiff conceded he “should have been much more clear” about that.
Democrats, who are united behind Mr. Schiff, counter that the attacks are opportunistic; Republicans, they say, are attacking Mr. Schiff over process because they cannot defend the president on the merits of his behavior.
There is little room for error as Mr. Schiff pushes the inquiry forward in the coming months. His performance could determine not only Mr. Trump’s future, but also his own. Mr. Schiff is a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and viewed by some as her possible successor. At a recent news conference, Ms. Pelosi — not ordinarily one to cede control — took the rare step of sitting with reporters to watch admiringly as the congressman spoke.
“He’s a full package,” Ms. Pelosi said in an interview, praising Mr. Schiff as “always gracious, always lovely.” She added, “He knows his purpose, and his purpose is not to engage in that silliness that the president is engaged in.”
A lawyer educated at Stanford University and Harvard Law School, Mr. Schiff tried his first big case three decades ago when, as a young federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, he secured the conviction of an F.B.I. agent who was seduced by a Soviet spy and traded secrets for gold and cash. In 1996, he won a seat in the California Senate; in 2000, he was elected to the House by beating a Republican who had been a manager in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
In Washington, Mr. Schiff joined the Blue Dogs, a group of conservative Democrats, and made a name for himself as a national security expert. He joined the Intelligence Committee in 2008 — drawn to it, Mr. Israel said, because he viewed it as “a quiet place for bipartisanship.”
His breakout moment came in 2014, when the Republican-led House established a committee to investigate the attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Mr. Schiff had argued that Democrats should not participate in what he viewed as a partisan exercise, but Ms. Pelosi put him on the committee.
But it was the election of Mr. Trump that elevated Mr. Schiff’s profile, and made him a sought-after speaker and fund-raiser in Democratic circles. As the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee last term, when Republicans still had the majority, he vigorously investigated Russian election interference and questions around whether the Trump campaign had conspired with hostile foreign actors, becoming the most recognizable public face explaining the biggest story in Washington on national TV. When Democrats won the majority in the House, he helped Ms. Pelosi draft a broad investigative strategy.
Mr. Schiff was a late convert to the impeachment push; like Ms. Pelosi, he held back until revelations about Ukraine emerged. For the last five weeks, he has spent much of his time in a secure room four floors below the Capitol, overseeing the closed-door questioning of witnesses. He opens each witness interview and sometimes steps in to conduct questioning himself.
“The American people have a right to know — they have a need to know — how deep this misconduct goes,” he said, adding, “There’s no hiding the president’s hand in any of this.”
These days, Mr. Schiff has tried to tightly control his public profile. He goes on television less than he used to, and zips wordlessly through the Capitol, trailed by a phalanx of aides and a scrum of journalists, smiling wanly as they pepper him with questions.
It has all given him “a new appreciation” of the struggles his celebrity constituents face in maintaining their privacy, he says. And he is well aware that, out there in the rest of America, he has become a polarizing figure.
“I feel I’ve become kind of a human focus group,” he said during a panel discussion after the screening here. “People will stop me in the airport in close succession. One will come up to me and say, ‘Are you Adam Schiff? I just want to shake your hand, you’re my hero,’ immediately to be followed by someone else who says, ‘Why are you destroying our democracy?’ ”
The congressman paused for a moment, and concluded that both couldn’t be right, “because last time I checked, I’m the same person.”