Transcript: Trump Impeachment Process Was 'Absolutely Worth It,' Schiff Says
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., says that the months-long impeachment inquiry and Senate trial was "absolutely worth it," even though the Senate ultimately voted to acquit President Trump of the abuse of power and obstruction of Congress charges against him.
Trump on Thursday was defiant, saying he had done nothing wrong and that the Democrats' investigation had been a hoax.
Schiff was among the House Democrats who led the inquiry that resulted in Trump's impeachment in the House in December. He also acted as the lead impeachment manager in the Senate trial.
Read a transcript of his full interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep below.
Inskeep: So we watched the vote yesterday and we could sometimes see your face. And one of my colleagues was saying, he seems to be staring intently as the senators are voting. What were you thinking as the senators cast their votes?
Schiff: I was thinking of just how unusual it is to be in a legislative body and what you're hearing from senators is "guilty" or "not guilty." That's just not the kind of thing that is pronounced on a House floor or Senate floor — except for during impeachments. And here we were present for the third in history and first-ever where a Republican, or a member, frankly, of either party, would vote to convict a president of their own party. So it was a pretty historic and weighty moment. And of course, we didn't know fully what to expect. We thought we knew, but we'd turned out to be wrong.
Because of Mitt Romney. That's what you're saying was wrong.
Yes. And, you know, it wasn't entirely clear how all the Democratic senators were going to vote either. So there were some unknowns going into the proceeding. But, you know, I think we felt throughout, and certainly on the day of the verdict, just the sheer weight of history upon us.
Everybody watching this presumed that the verdict would be what the verdict was. But you had to go through this and go through the prosecution. Did you keep in your mind until the very end the possibility that somehow it could turn out differently?
Well, you know, I guess the way I thought of it was much like I mentioned on Monday. And that is, if we could change a single mind, if we could encourage a single member to vote their conscience and their oath and put their country over their party, that one person could change history. And I think Mitt Romney really did. I think he will change history. And —
How does one vote change history, given that it's still an acquittal?
Well, because I think what he did will give courage to others that they, too, can stand up. They can speak out. They can take on even their own president, their own party. They can do the right thing. That will lead to others to do the same. And it has a cascading impact.
But I'll also say that in the future, when I or my colleagues face very difficult votes, votes that may require us to contradict our party, we will think back to the courage that he displayed and it will inspire us. So I really do think what Mitt Romney did was extraordinary. And while I would have hoped that there would have been other senators to do the same thing, it makes it all the more extraordinary that he did it alone. And I think he deserves all of our respect.
Granting that you got that one vote — that perhaps you could not realistically expect and you got it — this was a months-long process, an extraordinarily difficult and divisive process. Was this process worth it?
It was absolutely worth it. And we felt very strongly and I think history will bear us out on this, that we needed to place a constraint on this president who was acting unethically, who was sacrificing our national security, who was jeopardizing the integrity of our elections. And whatever the result was going to be in the Senate, we couldn't sit still. We had a constitutional obligation to make the case.
Now, we can't dictate what senators do in fulfillment or lack of fulfillment of their oath, but we can make sure that we live up to ours. And for me, the fact that the day after Bob Mueller testified, the day after the president felt that he had escaped accountability for his first misconduct, that he was back at it again, said that this is a president who feels completely unconstrained. And that regardless of what the result may be, if the investigation led us to conclude that he had abused the power of his office, he needed to be impeached.
He's still in office. He's claiming total vindication. His personal lawyer has told us he should go right back to seeking investigations of Joe Biden in Ukraine and, in fact, elsewhere. How, if at all, is he constrained now?
Well, and you know, indeed, this is what we warned, that he would not stop trying to cheat, that his minions, like Rudy Giuliani, would continue to persist. That's a question, you know, best asked for the senators who acknowledge the president's guilt, who have to acknowledge now that he's not repentant, much as some of them may have hoped. There was no reason for that hope.
At the same time, though, I think the fact that this president has been impeached in the House of Representatives, has that stain upon his record and will, for all of time, will, if not deter him, it will deter others from engaging in the same kind of misconduct.
And I do think it poses some constraint on the president, even though it's imperfect. Had we done nothing, I think the president would have felt absolutely boundless. Those around him know the stigma that they, too, now will share with him. And I hope that that will have some impact on deterring him, but we will have to remain deeply vigilant.
Is there any value in the statements of Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, a few others who voted to acquit but indicated that they thought the president's actions were wrong?
You know, there's some value to it. It's an acknowledgment, I think, of the obvious. But even that is something in this environment, when you have the president and those around him denying the truth and trying to suggest they're entitled their own alternate reality.
So, yes, it's salutary that that members, the Senate will recognize the inescapable truth. At the same time, it's, I think, dangerously unsatisfactory for those same senators to say the House proved he was guilty, but we're not ready to convict him. We'll let the voters decide — when we know he's trying to cheat in that election. We'll let the voters decide — while at the same time we will deprive the voters of the full information that they would need to make an informed decision. Because we won't have people like John Bolton testify, we will not enforce congressional subpoenas, we will not share with the public the documentary evidence, we will not give the American people the full record to evaluate when they go to the polls.
So I don't think that's much of an answer. And I think equally unsatisfactory to say, as one senator did, that, well, there can't be a fair trial in the Senate, so therefore, I'm not going to support witnesses.
Senators are not passive participants here. They're not, you know, in the backseat of the car. They were controlling the trial in the Senate. They had the sole power to decide whether we heard witnesses or not. They exercised that power not to hear witnesses. And no, they will have to answer for that with the voters and I think with history.
Have you had moments of wondering whether a different strategy might have produced a different result? Investigating longer, spending some time in the courts to see if you would get some of your witnesses before the House, preemptively answering some of the complaints that some of the senators later made about your own process?
I think those complaints are so clearly thin and unavailing that no, it doesn't cause me to second guess our strategy at all. Had we decided to pursue John Bolton in court, for example, we'd be in the same place we are right now with Don McGahn, which is, nine months from now, we would still be litigating the matter with no end in sight. We would have had an election in which the president was actively trying to cheat.
Other witnesses would take even longer. We would still be fighting over documents. We would go up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court would decide, as lower courts have, there is no absolute immunity. And these witnesses would come in before us and they would refuse to answer questions, not on the basis of absolute immunity anymore, but by claiming a bogus executive privilege, which we would then have to go all the way back up to the Supreme Court to litigate.
This is what they did in Watergate, though, and ultimately the president resigned.
Well, in Watergate, they were able to get a quick decision from the court, which we were not able to get here. And in Watergate, you had Republicans more willing to stand up to a president of their own party.
In Watergate, you would have never had lawyers for the president argue, as they did in this case on the Senate floor, that if the president believes that his reelection is in the public interest, he can engage in any corrupt quid pro quo or bargain or stratagem he wants and it is constitutionally permissible.
No self-respecting lawyer for the president would have made that argument in the Senate. But we are where we are. The times are not the same, and I think they're much more dangerous because at the moment, at least one of the political parties is willing to tolerate a level of dishonesty, immorality and downright criminality in the Oval Office as long as it's a president of their party.
So what's your plan B?
Well, we're gonna have to continue to keep a vigilant eye on what this president does, because he shows no signs of repentance and no signs of letting up on his efforts to seek foreign intervention in the election. If he's capable of withholding hundreds of millions of dollars from an ally at war to coerce or extort that ally into helping his reelection campaign, he's capable of anything. And so the Congress is going to have to be vigilant and protect our institutions as long as they're under threat.
Will you continue investigating these very same matters in Ukraine?
We haven't made a decision about next steps in terms of an investigation. We did after the senators voted not to hear from witnesses approach John Bolton through his counsel. We asked that he submit an affidavit under oath. That is something we thought we could timely accomplish before the senators had to make a decision. And Bolton refused. Now, why —
Did he say, "I can't do it right now, it's too quick," or did he say, "I will never talk to you"?
I don't know whether they gave much of an explanation, but they just said they wouldn't do it. And I think, you know, Mr. Bolton will have a lot of explaining to do about why he could put this in a book and feels it's not classified — but he could not submit it under oath in an affidavit during the Senate trial.
Well, let's talk about that for a minute. Here's a key witness, former national security adviser, who didn't talk to the House, said in a public statement he would talk to the Senate, the Senate didn't want to hear his testimony by majority vote. You say he's now declined to talk to you again, but he's indicated that he has information. Do you have the power to go get him?
He's declined to submit an affidavit, at least he did during the trial. And here's another important point. You asked, well, could we have done this differently and what if we'd taken another year or two years to hear from Bolton and other witnesses?
What we saw in the Senate is for tragically too many of the Republican senators, it didn't matter how strong the evidence was. They said we proved the case. And yes, we could have proved it even more thoroughly if we took another two years to do it. But the reality is, if they recognize we proved the case, what would change if we proved it even more?
So, I think we made the decision to move when we did it, with good reason, and I think that has now been validated by what the senators have said. In terms of Mr. Bolton, again, we wanted to wait until the trial was over before we made any decisions about next steps. No decisions at this point have been made.
Do you have the power to send the sergeant at arms, or whoever it would be, to go find him out in Washington, D.C., and bring him back?
We have a power we haven't used since the 1930s of inherent contempt, where you can essentially have a trial on the House floor and hold somebody in contempt that we used to be able to imprison them in a jail in the capital.
One of the things that we have been exploring for some time is whether to resurrect that power and, rather than rebuild the jail, impose daily fines until we get compliance. But even there, and even if we had a jail, it's not necessarily the cure-all that it may appear because if you were to arrest somebody or you were to find someone, they would file a habeas corpus petition in court, you're right back in court again, the court would likely stay any imprisonment until it's litigated.
If you try to impose fines, the Congress doesn't have the ability to garnish someone's wages. So you'd have to go to court to enforce the fines. At the end of the day, you still end up in the same place, which is in court. And this, I think, points to, you know, two problems.
One, for those senators that voted, notwithstanding the most universal obstruction we've ever seen for a president not to convict on that article, they essentially voted away their oversight power.
The second problem is, though, that the courts are not a sufficiently swift means of enforcement, of congressional process. And on that, we will be introducing legislation to provide for an expedited court process in the future for the enforcement of congressional subpoenas. That's not something I expect we can get done with this president. But it is one of the post-Watergate, our own Watergate reforms that we are contemplating.
Two officials, I could name many, but two officials still in the administration that you wanted to hear from — Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Pompeo — do you still want to hear from them?
I would still like to hear from them. But we have to make the decision about next steps in consultation with our caucus and our leadership.
What do you weigh there, whether you want to put your energy there or into something else? Is that the question that is at issue?
Well, I think, you know, what we'll need to weigh is the need to validate Congress' oversight authority, the need to make sure the American people understand the full length and breadth of the president's misconduct, as well as others in the administration that were part of the misconduct. And at the same time, the imperative of keeping our legislative agenda first and foremost and striking the right balance between the two.
In our first of these conversations, you said that an argument for impeachment was also an argument against it — an argument for it being that a president who is not pursued in this way would feel free to go on acting as he was, and future presidents would as well. The argument against it being that if you impeach and fail to remove, you will still send that same signal that this president and future presidents are free to do as they will.
Is that the presumption now, that this president and future presidents will be able to ignore congressional oversight, as you see it, and act as they want overseas as they see it, as you see it, regardless of congressional efforts to stop them?
Well, that is a danger by what the senators did in recognizing the president's guilt, but nonetheless, voting to acquit him because he was the president of their party.
Is it the new default position? The president, from your perspective, got away with it.
We have to make sure that that is not what people take away from this chapter of history, that rather it is that a president that flouts Congress will be impeached, whether they're convicted or not, their name will be stigmatized for all of history. And more than that, we have to, I think, recognize the salutary impact of this trial, which is, the American people got a much better understanding of the misconduct of the chief executive of the country, the plot was ultimately thwarted. Now that plotting continues.
But had we not done our investigation, had we not taken this to trial, I have no doubt that Ukraine would have been forced to capitulate and conduct or announce these political investigations. So we were able to stop the plot. I hope permanently, but certainly for a period of time. We were able to inform the country, which moved from a position where a strong majority Americans did not support even doing the investigation to the point where a narrow majority not only supported investigation but supports his conviction or removal from office.
That's a pretty dramatic change for three months. And I think we always viewed that we had two juries. We had a jury of senators, which was going to be a very difficult jury, but we had the jury of the American people, which was ultimately the more important jury.
Do you want people to be thinking about this process when they vote in November?
I think that they should bear in mind the president's serious misconduct and, perhaps even more importantly, his fundamental lack of character and morality. I think Americans should want someone committed to telling the truth. I think they should want someone who knows the difference between right and wrong and has a sense of decency, and these are qualities all lacking in the president of the United States.
Do you have any information that the president has solicited any other foreign interference anywhere in the world since this Ukraine affair seemed to have come to a close last fall?
Well, I mean, he certainly and very openly solicited China to interfere. And, you know, for those that said, well, surely he was joking —
He made a statement saying China should investigate Joe Biden, right?
Yes. The president, I think, has made it abundantly clear that he is not joking, that he would like China to do investigation of the Bidens, that he still wants Ukraine to do investigation the Bidens. Now, whether he has communicated privately to other countries. I don't know. What is said at the private meetings between the president and Vladimir Putin, I have no idea. But I think we have seen from displays like we saw in Helsinki, where he took the Kremlin dictator's views over his own intelligence agency's, this president is capable of anything. And if he is animated by the same philosophy expressed by Mr. Dershowitz — that if it's in his reelection interest is therefore the national interest and he can do no wrong — then we are deeply at risk.
Just before you and I sat down, we learned that the Senate Intelligence Committee has put out findings having to do with the 2016 election and inadequate efforts, as they said, to counter Russian interference in the election. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman, described paralysis of analysis, thinking really hard about the options and not really taking any of them. Do you agree that that is how the Obama administration handled interference last time?
I have been, really since that whole chapter, been critical of the Obama administration's handling of that. At the time, Sen. Feinstein and I urged, as we were watching in the summer of 2016, the Russians interfering, we urged the administration to go public, to attribute the hacking and interference to the Russians. There was reluctance by the Obama administration to do so.
It was a concern on their part that making an attribution in that way would be perceived as their, the Obama administration's, trying to put their hand on the scale in favor of the Clinton campaign as opposed the Trump campaign. But my feeling and Sen. Feinstein's was that the American people not only deserved to hear the truth but they need to, to make informed judgment.
You wish the president had said that more loudly? They put out a statement but he should have said it out loud?
He should have said that earlier, more loudly. Now, ultimately, they did make attribution, but it was from two agency heads in a written statement that came out on the same day as the Access Hollywoodtapes. And so it was obscured. And, you know, some of my colleagues in the administration at the time pointed to that and said, well, you know, it was terrible timing. To me, that's not an adequate answer, because if it didn't get the attention it deserved — and it didn't — then there was nothing stopping others from going out and speaking and making the point much more emphatically.
Mark Warner, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, makes a very relevant point to now. He says the Obama administration was right to fear that if they made a warning of Russian interference, it would be seen as a partisan meddling in the election by President Obama. He then says that fear is still present today. It would be difficult now to warn against foreign interference without being seen as making a partisan point.
Well, that is a risk. And we included in the Intelligence Authorization Act a requirement that the director of national intelligence make a public acknowledgment if there is foreign interference that the intelligence community discovers prior to election. We wanted to make that a requirement so that it wouldn't be discretionary.
Now, there will always be second guessing about when such a statement is made and how it is made. But we can't shrink from that, notwithstanding that one side or the other can claim some poor motive. The American people need to know if someone is trying to monkey with our election. And so I thought then, I think now, that regardless of how the chips may fall, if the intelligence community determines that a foreign power is trying to intervene, they need to speak publicly about it.
Which foreign actors, if any, are trying to influence the U.S. election now?
It is still predominantly the Russians. They are the gravest threat of election interference. And it really hasn't stopped since 2016. They will be better able to hide their hand in 2020. They have new tools that they can use, including deepfake technology that allows the production and dissemination of very realistic audio or video of speeches or photos or audio recordings that are completely forged — events that didn't take place, speeches that weren't given, things that weren't said — but can do so in a really convincing way. Or, as we saw in the cheap fake released of Nancy Pelosi, where one of her speeches was slowed down and the pitch was raised, so it looked like she was impaired, they can play into narratives that they want to advance.
You're calling that a cheap fake because that was not the most sophisticated thing that could have been done? Something far worse could have been done or harder to detect?
Yes, I think probably any teenager could do that. And yet it got millions and millions of views and it was pushed out by the president and his allies even after they knew that it was a forgery. And, you know, this is a profound risk.
And the Russians are active now in a manner that is similar to the way they were in 2016?
Yes. Yes, I mean, there's certainly, you know, the two main vectors of Russian interference in 2016 were their massive social media campaign on Donald Trump's behalf and hacking and dumping operation, which also helped Trump and targeted Hillary Clinton. Now, in this cycle, they're certainly still active in social media. And if the public reports are correct, they're also active in a hacking operation. They apparently targeted Burisma [Holdings] and this time they could very well do something that I was deeply concerned about in 2016, which is, in 2016, they hacked the DNC and the DCCC, the Democratic headquarters, and they released stolen but largely authentic documents. This time they don't have to be authentic. They could hack Burisma. They could release real Burisma documents, but they could also release forgeries about Hunter Biden or anyone else. And it would be almost impossible to disprove if they were dumped in the last few weeks of an election. And so the potential for mischief is even greater.
Does any of this keep you up at night, Mr. Chairman?
Yes, it does. The idea that we could have another close election with, once again, sizable foreign interference with a president who, rather than rejects it, welcomes it, and it lead to a disputed result would be catastrophic for the country. And so it concerns me a great deal. And I think the best that we can do is to be vigilant, to try to develop a bipartisan consensus, which we lacked in the last election, that we will all reject foreign interference of any kind. It will be a liability rather than an asset for whoever it's intended to help. We will all call it out and we'll all do our civic duty and we will turn out in droves on Election Day.
Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for your time.
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