The California Democrat’s eyes became moist and his bottom lip quivered as he invoked the late Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who unexpectedly died last month in the middle of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
“In my view, there is nothing more dangerous than an unethical president who believes they are above the law,” said Schiff, jabbing at the air with his forefinger for emphasis. “And I would just say to people watching here at home and around the world, in the words of my great colleague, ‘We are better than that.’”
The moment marked a rare flash of emotion for a man known on Capitol Hill for his vegan diet and his reserved, disciplined — some would even say boring — disposition.
But it is precisely Shiff’s sober demeanor and steady hand guiding the two-month impeachment investigation — including two weeks of televised public hearings — that have made him a national political figure, a household name and unlikely progressive rock star.
He has become a regular presence on the Sunday shows, delivering the party’s message on impeachment, and he recently received a standing ovation at the California Democratic Party convention in Long Beach.
And while the impeachment process is far from over — he and his committee are writing an impeachment report over the Thanksgiving recess — his colleagues on Capitol Hill are speculating how high the 59-year-old chairman can climb after his star turn in the Trump-Ukraine saga.
Some Democrats see him as the natural heir to 86-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.); others say the 19-year Southern California congressman is a House guy through and through and could one day run to succeed Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), his close ally. One of his House colleagues from the Golden State said she saw a president in the making as Schiff led the televised hearings these past two weeks.
“When we look at the characteristics of what we want to see in a president, it is somebody who is not going to lose composure because he’s been poked. And we’re seeing that on display from Adam Schiff every single day,” said the California Democratic lawmaker. “He’s not too vanilla. But I kind of want that now after Trump. We need boring; boring is good.”
Schiff in control
A dozen fact witnesses. Seven hearings. Five days. With Schiff at the helm, Democrats have always felt comfortably in control of the historic impeachment hearings examining whether Trump tried to pressure Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election.
When the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), tried to yield time to his GOP colleague Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), Schiff gaveled her down and firmly but politely explained that she was not permitted to speak during Nunes’s 45-minute allotment under House rules — rules that Schiff himself helped write.
And when GOP questions appeared to go down a path that could out the whistleblower who prompted the impeachment inquiry, Schiff shut down that line of inquiry and warned Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and other witnesses not to say anything that could reveal the individual’s identity.
“Steady, balanced, objective, clear about the Constitution and very focused,” Rep. Barbara Lee, a fellow California progressive and a former Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, said of Schiff.
“I think he’s a brilliant mind. I think he’s a thoughtful leader,” added Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), who serves alongside Schiff on the Intelligence panel. “I found myself looking to him for counsel and guidance, and I’ve even taken some cues from his style.”
“Preparation is so critical, understanding the content, surrounding yourself with people who are smart so that you can learn from them — that strategy for Schiff has proven to be effective,” he added.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), a former prosecutor and a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, also heaped praise on Schiff: “He’s a former prosecutor, and I think he is perfect for this job.”
‘A lot of options’
The good news for Schiff is that he has plenty of doors open to him. He could probably stay on as Intelligence chairman for another two-year term after the 2020 election; it’s a post appointed by the Speaker. Or he could exercise his “right to return” to the House Appropriations Committee, where he could replace retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) as chair of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee.
“He has a lot of options,” said one senior Democratic aide who’s been following Schiff.
Most Democrats think he will aim higher, though Schiff has kept his cards close to the vest.
Through a spokesman, Schiff declined to comment for this story.
Colleagues from California and elsewhere say Schiff would be a strong contender to succeed Feinstein, the state’s senior senator who in 2018 won her sixth and likely last Senate election. There’s also the possibility Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), now a long-shot presidential hopeful, could be tapped for vice president or a top Cabinet post in a Democratic administration.
“I think he would be a good senator,” Rep. Norma Torres, a member of the Hispanic Caucus and a fellow Southern California Democrat, told The Hill. “I think how he’s handled himself is very admirable, that he’s been able to keep his composure even though he’s been personally attacked. This is not easy for him.”
Trump has singled out Schiff at campaign rallies and on Twitter, nicknaming him “pencil neck” and “Shifty Schiff.” The president’s allies on Capitol Hill have called for Schiff to be ousted as Intelligence chairman and censured on the House floor. And Nunes has ridiculed Schiff’s impeachment hearings, calling them a “circus,” “sham” and “show trial.”
But the same qualities that have made him a target of the right have made Schiff a hero of the left. At a speech at the California Democratic Party convention in Long Beach this month, Schiff stood on stage and declared to the party faithful, “We will send that charlatan in the White House back to the golden throne he came from.”
The speech was met with a roaring standing ovation.
“I think he needed that, and I think we needed to see him there,” said Torres, who was in attendance.
But in the nation’s most populous state with no shortage of ambitious politicians, a Senate race could be a crowded affair. One former 2020 presidential candidate who serves on Schiff’s committee, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), could run for an open seat, as could Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a House Judiciary Committee member and colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
Both have become outspoken Trump critics on cable news and Twitter.
Others who could run for Senate down the road include a pair of Democrats who have already won statewide: California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who served with Schiff in the House and briefly overlapped with him at Stanford University. But many think Becerra has his sights set on the governor’s office.
Schiff fundraising kicks into high gear
Just as a Senate bid would be no sure bet, neither would a run for Speaker of the House. First, there’s the question of whether a House Democratic Caucus that is more diverse and more female than ever would elect a white male.
But if the caucus were deadlocked and no candidate could secure the necessary 218 votes, some Democrats said they could envision Schiff as a consensus pick or “white knight,” just as former Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was drafted to run for Speaker in 2015 after then-Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) abruptly abandoned his bid.
And while some Democrats describe him as socially “awkward” and hardly a back-slapper who excels at the inside game in the Capitol, Schiff has been showering his colleagues with campaign cash through his leadership PAC, United for a Strong America.
In the 2018 cycle, he kicked his fundraising operation into high gear, raising $537,000 for front-line Democrats, including incoming freshman Reps. Lucy McBath (Ga.), Angie Craig (Minn.), Ben McAdams (Utah) and Katie Porter (Calif.). During the 2016 cycle, he gave only $13,500 to fellow House Democrats.
“I think he’s a House person. The public sees him as in control, even-keeled, doesn’t lose it. What he has done is marshal us all together, keep us all on this one track. He’s been pragmatic,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a progressive leader who attends weekly chairman’s meetings with Schiff, told The Hill.
“People are bristling about the fact that we were not moving fast enough, but at the end of the day, I think how he has handled this and the public face he has given to this issue has certainly enhanced his reputation, not just here but across the country and certainly in California,” he added.
“Whatever position he was in, he’s above it now,” Grijalva said.
This piece was originally published in the Hill.