Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep interviews House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., about the public phase of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Schiff will preside over televised hearings set to begin on Wednesday.
Steve Inskeep: I want to begin with some words in the Constitution about impeachment. The document says that an official can be impeached and removed for treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors. Which are these, in your view?
Rep. Adam Schiff: Well, I don't think any decision has been made on the ultimate question about whether articles of impeachment should be brought. That will be the purpose of these hearings and the subsequent work done in the Judiciary Committee. But on the basis of what the witnesses have had to say so far, there are any number of potentially impeachable offenses: including bribery, including high crimes and misdemeanors. The basic allegations against the president are that he sought foreign interference in a U.S. election, that he conditioned official acts on the performance of these political favors — and those official acts include a White House meeting that the president of Ukraine desperately sought with President Trump, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funded military assistance for a country that is at war with Russia and a country that the United States has a deep national security interest in making sure it can defend itself.
Can you explain for the layman how those acts — if everything happened, as you suspect it did — how those acts would be "bribery" – the word you used?
Well, bribery, first of all, as the founders understood bribery, it was not as we understand it in law today. It was much broader. It connoted the breach of the public trust in a way where you're offering official acts for some personal or political reason, not in the nation's interest. Here you have the president of the United States seeking help from Ukraine in his reelection campaign in the form of two investigations that he thought were politically advantageous, including one of his primary rival.
That's a payoff, is what you're saying. That would be the payoff in this scenario.
Well, bribery only requires that you're soliciting something of value. It doesn't have to be cash. It can be something of value. And clearly, given the concerted effort that was brought about to get these investigations going by the president, by Rudy Giuliani, by Ambassador Sondland, by others, this was something of great value to the president. And conditioning the performance of an official act for some private benefit, you know, is very potentially a violation of not only what the founders had in mind in terms of bribery, but the bribery statutes even of today.
But more than that, high crimes and misdemeanors also include things that are violations of the public trust. The public trusts the president to be acting in their interests, not in the interest of their political campaign when it comes to conducting the nation's business. And certainly not when it comes to withholding hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money.
Having gathered thousands of pages of testimony — I did hear you say you haven't decided exactly what the articles of impeachment might be, but have you made up your mind that there is an impeachable offense?
I want to reserve my judgment until we've had a chance not only to flesh out all the facts but also to have the debate within our caucus and within our country about whether the facts, once established, require us to remove the president. Impeachment was a mechanism not to punish but to protect the country going forward. And one of things that that I am deeply concerned about is the fact that the president engaged in some of this conduct on the very day after Bob Mueller presented his findings to Congress. The president gives every impression that he believes that he is above the law, that he can solicit foreign interference in our elections. He can do whatever he pleases, that anyone who calls out his corrupt behavior is a traitor or a spy. That's a very dangerous situation.
You know, Mr. Chairman, that Republicans connect the Mueller report to this affair in a different way. They will say, "Democrats tried with the Mueller report to get this guy out of office. Didn't work out, fizzled. And so now they're trying this instead." And they're convinced that you've always been looking for this opportunity. What do you say to them?
Well, unfortunately, that's at odds with the facts, because as my Republican colleagues know, I've resisted impeachment and did resist impeachment until this latest and most serious misconduct. I wrote an op-ed, I think over a year ago, in The New York Times with the headline, "Democrats Should Not Take the Bait on Impeachment." What has made this inquiry a necessity now is not that I or anyone else have wanted this all along, but rather the president's own misconduct and the fact that misconduct has been repeated and gotten worse over time. It was bad enough when candidate Trump sought help from a foreign country and built that help into his campaign plan and messaging strategy, lied about it, covered it up and then obstructed the investigation into it. It was worse still when, as president of the United States, he obstructed justice. But it is worse again that as president of United States he is now using the power of his office to coerce an ally to interfere in our election in a way that he believes would be advantageous. So it's that misconduct that has forced us to go down this road.
You mentioned your resistance to impeachment. You know that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke dimly of impeachment for a while. She said it needed to be overwhelming and bipartisan. It sounds like you believe this is overwhelming. The feeling is not at all bipartisan. Haven't you fallen short of that standard here?
We can't let one party that has allowed itself to become a cult of the president to dictate whether a constitutional remedy can be employed. I would hope, if not members of the House, then members of the Senate will put their party aside, will look to their constitutional duty and oath and ask themselves the question, if it comes to this — and again, we haven't prejudged whether it's going to come to this. But if it does come to a trial in the Senate, I hope they will be prepared to ask themselves the question: Are we prepared to accept that a president of the United States can withhold taxpayer funds, deprive an ally of the ability to defend itself, withhold official acts like a White House meeting with a foreign leader and do so in order to get help in a presidential election? Can a president of the United States obstruct Congress? Refuse to allow witnesses to appear, refuse to provide documents? Are we prepared to fundamentally alter our conception of the presidency itself? These are the tough questions that members on both sides of the aisle are going to have to ask.
We should note, and I'll ask about it a bit later, that Republicans, of course, cast these facts in a different light. But let me ask about the bipartisan nature, or the lack of it here. Is public opinion the ultimate judge and jury here? By which I mean, if there was not some support for impeachment, you might not have gone this far. And if there isn't more, he is not going to be removed from office.
I do think the public sentiment is very important. And one of the reasons why we are —
Let's — if we can stop for this, we'll just note that that's a signal that you have a vote to get to. Is that true?
Oh, OK. Go on. Anyway. All right. Go on. I'm sorry. Yeah. I mean, is public opinion the ultimate judge and jury here?
Well, I think there are — if it comes to impeachment, there are really two juries. There is the jury that is the Senate. And I would hope that those jurors would keep an open mind, although it's clear that several will not. But the other jury is the American people. It's important, I think, for the American people to understand the facts — and this is why we're having the public hearings. But it's also important for the American people to understand and express themselves about what they expect of a president of the United States. And I have every confidence that the public wants a president to uphold the dignity of their office. They want a president to act in their interests, not in their personal political interests. They want a president to put the country first. And if they believe that the president hasn't done this, they will express themselves. And, you know, all of us are going to have to consult with our conscience, our Constitution and our constituents in making these decisions in both the House and the Senate. And public opinion will be important.
You've insisted, Mr. Chairman, that you're keeping an open mind — as a chairman probably should in this situation. But you've also described the acts in a certain way that suggests a dim view of them. What is it that you need to know – still — that you hope to find out through the public hearings?
We continue to learn new information all the time: as additional people come forward, as we have an opportunity to ask more questions of the witnesses. We are still pursuing an array of documentary evidence. Some of the most important documentary evidence is being withheld from us by the administration. So there is more to learn here. At the same time, we're not willing to play rope-a-dope in the courts and allow this to go on in unending fashion.
Does that mean you would go ahead if you don't get another shred of evidence? The White House succeeds in keeping you from getting anything else. You've just got the witnesses you have now. Do you have enough to make a judgment?
We will have to make a decision when we get to the point where it would take a long time to get any further substantive evidence, whether it's time to make a decision based on what we already know at that point, should articles of impeachment be brought against this president?
There is pretty clear evidence of a number of things here. The request for investigations, for example, the withholding of military aid to Ukraine and some other things. But let me ask about one aspect of the evidence. What evidence, if any, shows that President Trump himself directed all the elements of this affair?
Well, I'm going to defer to the hearings and let the American people make a judgment about that. For one thing, I don't know that I have the time during this interview to catalogue what the witnesses have said thus far. But I think –
Do you believe there is evidence that shows that?
Yes. And I think what the public will see is that there aren't many facts that are truly in dispute here. There may be a dispute about how we ought to respond to the facts, but so much of what the witnesses have had to say is consistent. And you're always going to have minor inconsistencies. Sometimes you have more than minor inconsistencies. But so many of the facts are not truly contested. And of course, the president's conduct on that call is not contested. The fact that the aid was withheld is not contested. The fact that Mick Mulvaney acknowledged that the aid was withheld by the president out of an interest in getting these investigations is not contested — even though he has attempted to recant what he said, we have that on film. And so many of these facts are not really subject to much dispute. The interpretation of them, yes. But the facts, not as much.
I'm thinking about the fact that you have Gordon Sondland, one of the diplomats involved here, now has sent you a letter stating that he himself delivered this statement to a Ukrainian official — that they must make a statement on investigations if they wanted to get the military aid. But then he testifies, and I'm quoting here, "I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement," leaving room for some kind of miscommunication or for an order that came from someone other than the president.
I'm not going to go into specific testimony, but I can say that for weeks now my colleagues in the GOP said, "Well, the Ukrainians never even knew the aid was being withheld. How can there be any problem if the Ukrainians were unaware that the aid was withheld?" There's no dispute about the fact that Ukraine found out about the aid being withheld.
When did they know? When did the Ukrainians know?
Well, this the public will get to see in the public testimony, but um —
Well I think that's an important thing to push on now, because, as you know, Republicans are saying the Ukrainians did not know as of the president's July 25 phone call, that the aid was being withheld. There is some testimony to that effect. Do you know when the Ukrainians found out the aid was being withheld?
We know that there are now multiple witnesses who have related conversations with Ukrainians about their knowledge that the aid was being withheld before it was made public.
Was it before July 25?
And in fact, one of the witnesses testified that they were impressed by the Ukrainian tradecraft in the sense of how quickly they found out about the hold, even when it was non-public. But again, at this point, it's not my role to go through a detailed recitation of the evidence. What I can tell you is we want all these facts to come out in the open hearings. We believe that they will. We are also in the process of releasing the transcripts so that the public can review them on their own. And much of the evidence I think you'll find is very consistent.
I've been reading and I do want to ask about this one detail, because you said the Ukrainians found out through unofficial channels that the aid was being withheld. There is this specific point of contention about whether they knew by the July 25 phone call. Did they know they had a problem with military aid when the president of the United States called them and asked for investigations on July 25?
Well, first of all, I would dispute whether it's really the issue about whether they knew before or after July 25. The fact of the matter is they did find out. And they were told, as you referenced by Ambassador Sondland, that unless they conducted these investigations they were not going to get the aid.
So it doesn't matter exactly when they knew because they did find out eventually?
I think it will be important for us to bring out all the facts that we have in terms of precisely when the witnesses are able to identify that Ukraine found out. But the most important point is, Steve, they found out. And they found out before it was public. And they knew what the president wanted of them, because the president told them on the phone that he wanted these two investigations. And so whether they learned before that call or they learned after that call, they learned. And they knew what the president wanted. And ultimately, they were prepared to give the president what he wanted. President Zelenskiy was ready to do a public interview on CNN to announce the investigations that the president wanted. And that proved not to be necessary because ultimately the White House found out about a whistleblower complaint. The White House found out that Congress was investigating the withholding of this military aid. And the president started getting asked questions by members of Congress that were very uncomfortable about quid pro quos. So at the end of the day, what really matters here is, Ukraine was given these demands by the president. Ukraine found out that military aid that it desperately needed was being withheld. That's, I think, the most important of the facts.
Does it matter at all in the gravity of this, the seriousness of it, that the affair you just described failed? It didn't happen. President Zelenskiy didn't give the interview. The aid was released.
You know, in terms of Ukraine's benefit, it certainly matters to Ukraine that ultimately it got the aid. It didn't get the White House meeting, but it got the aid.
I mean, when you consider the seriousness —
— In terms of whether the president has committed an impeachable offense, the fact that the scheme was discovered, the fact that the scheme was unsuccessful, doesn't make it any less odious or any less impeachable. If the president solicited foreign help in the U.S. election, if the president conditioned official acts on the performance of these political favors, whether Ukraine ever had to go through with it really doesn't matter. What matters is, did the president attempt to commit acts that ought to result in his removal from office?
I'm thinking about past impeachments, though. I'm thinking of Andrew Johnson in the 1860s who fired a cabinet official after having been told by Congress he must not do that. There was a specific thing that he actually went through with, that he actually did. Would you suggest that this is just as serious?
Oh, I think this is far more serious than an issue of firing a cabinet official because this is an issue of betraying the national security of the United States. Of withholding military support, of withholding, in a way, diplomatic support by denying this White House meeting for this new president of Ukraine who wanted to demonstrate to the Russians that he had the full support of the president of the United States, his most important patron. That damages our national security —
You think he wanted to demonstrate to the Russians that he was on their side?
Well, no, no, no. What I'm saying is, President Zelenskiy —
Oh, I see. Wrong president. Go on.
Yes. President Zelenskiy wanted to demonstrate that he had the full support of the president of the United States. That this new president of Ukraine who was embarked on this agenda of trying to end the war with Russia had the president of the United States, had the backing of the president of the United States, had the military support of the United States. That was a very important message to send to Russia. And by denying these things, by withholding these things so that the president could get these political investigations, undermined our national security even as it undermined Ukraine's.
Two last things, just to understand what you see as the importance of the significance of this particular set of facts. As you know, the president and his defenders have said he was only thinking about the 2016 election, that he wanted to look into theories about 2016. This is what Mick Mulvaney seems to have admitted to — the White House chief of staff. Is it any less grave, in your view, if it was only about 2016, but all the same facts apply?
Well, you know, I think the hypothetical is so at odds with the facts, because we have the president's own call record. And the president brings up two investigations he wants conducted. One into this debunked CrowdStrike conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine that hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016, not the Russians. That, by the way, is the Russians' favorite narrative of the matter. But the president also wanted investigation of the Bidens. And this wasn't simply what was raised on the call, although it is certainly the most direct evidence of what the president wanted. But it was raised by the president's proxies, people like the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Last thing. In deciding whether to go forward with impeachment, of course, you have to consider the ultimate result. Whether you really have a chance in the Senate. If you decide the facts are serious enough, would it be worth it going ahead, even if you know you're likely to fail — that the president would not be removed?
I've always thought that the strongest argument for impeachment was also the strongest argument against it, which is if you don't impeach a president who commits conduct of this kind, what does that say to the next president about what they can do, and to the next Congress? At the same time, if you do impeach but the president is acquitted, what does that say to the next president, to the next Congress? There's no good or simple answer to those, that conundrum.
But what compelled me to go down this road is the fact that no sooner had one investigation come to a close, no sooner had Bob Mueller testified about the president's first effort to solicit foreign help, but the president was at it again. And impeachment is not only a remedy to remove a president, it's also the most powerful sanction the House has. And if that deters further presidential misconduct, then it may provide some remedy even in the absence of a conviction in the Senate. But again, I have to hope that my Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle will keep an open mind, will do their constitutional duty, will set aside the party of the president. Because otherwise, why are they even there, and what does their oath of office really mean?
Mr. Chairman, thanks for your time.