By Adam Beyer
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff emphasized the necessity of remaining vigilant about threats to democracy at the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture Monday evening.
His talk took place the same day two former campaign advisers to President Donald Trump were indicted in the ongoing Justice Department probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
Schiff (D-Calif.) is the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is the midst of a separate high-profile investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. He emphasized that his committee’s work has far-reaching implications.
“People minimize what this is all about,” Schiff said. “Democrats and Republicans tend to think much too narrowly about just what Russia was doing. We need to understand this as part of a global challenge to the very idea of liberal democracy, and if we don’t understand the nature of challenge then we are not going to have the right response to it.”
Rep. David Price (D- NC), who represents parts of the Research Triangle in Congress and is a faculty member at the Sanford School of Public Policy, introduced Schiff, praising him for his work on the Intelligence Committee.
“I do believe Adam Schiff has proven himself to be the right man for this job,” Price said. “As you will observe in how he handles himself, he balances a prosecutor’s respect for the integrity of the investigative process with a tenacity to follow the facts wherever they lead and the ability to articulate—to make clear—what is at stake to the American people.”
After Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced the first indictments in the investigation on Monday, Schiff took time between scheduled meetings with Duke students to make several national media appearances. At his talk, he described the indictments as filling additional “pieces into the puzzle” and predicted the investigation would stretch on into next year.
President Trump’s potential use of the pardon remains a point of concern, he said, but noted that such power is not absolute, and does not extend to obstruction of justice. Some constitutional theorists posit that a president cannot use the pardon to undermine other sections of the Constitution.
“There are limits,” Schiff said. “They have not been tested. I hope they will not be tested here.”
He added that he encourages his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to take action and speak out before a potential constitutional crisis.
“This is the time when we really need a champion of democracy and human rights in the Oval Office but that is not what we have,” he said.
The multiple congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the election play a different role than Mueller’s investigation, Schiff explained. While Mueller may pursue criminal convictions, it is up to Congress to explain to the American people what happened in the 2016 elections and what the government will do about it.
He noted that the interference was more than just helping a candidate; it was about tearing U.S. democracy apart. And next time could be worse, especially if a foreign power decided to release forged documents. In that case, it could be nearly impossible for a victim to prove the documents fake, Schiff said.
Cyberwarfare inherently advantages the offensive party, Schiff said, adding that a strong deterrent strategy is needed and that the Obama administration could have done more.
“The single most important thing we can do about this is develop a national consensus that if a foreign power interferes with our elections, we will all reject it,” he said. “We didn’t have that consensus last year but we sure as heck better have it next time. The single biggest impediment to gaining that consensus is a president of the United States who says this is all a hoax.”
Schiff, whose district includes parts of Los Angeles, has served in the House of Representatives since 2001. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was a former federal prosecutor. He and his wife, Eve, have two children.
As the investigation has progressed, his larger national profile has had effects on his family. In one case, Trump referred to “sleazy Adam Schiff” in a tweet. When he told his son, a freshman in high school, about the Tweet, he brushed it off with a joke.
“Can I call you sleazy?” Schiff said his son asked.
Schiff said young people give him hope for the future of the United States and suggested that they pick one issue they care most about and seek to make a difference in that area, so as not to become “paralyzed”
“I happen to think we’re all going to be held to answer for what we do right now,” he said.
The talk was sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy with support from the William R. Kenan Charitable Trust. Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science, moderated the discussion.
Co-sponsors were the Intelligence Community-Centers of Academic Excellence (IC-CAE), Duke’s Program in American Grand Strategy, the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Duke School of Law’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, and POLIS: The Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service.