Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a leader of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry against President Trump, spoke at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Thursday morning.
Tackling the impeachment inquiry and his role as the Chairman of the House Committee on Intelligence, Schiff underlined what he saw as “a very new and vicious ideological challenge” to the idea of democratic government around the world.
“The pernicious ideological struggle going on now between democracy and representative government, and dictatorship and autocracy … is the seminal ideological challenge of our time,” Schiff said.
Highlighting Russian interference in both the American election and other countries, Schiff also stressed surveillance techniques leveraged by the Chinese government that “allow them to maintain an iron grip on their people,” he said.
Citing the rise of authoritarianism and far-right politicians across the world, he recognized that “we also have our own dangerous challenge to democracy within.”
From there, Schiff went on to discuss the impeachment inquiry. He said that even as some of his colleagues in Congress favored impeachment for earlier actions taken by Trump, he was initially hesitant about that prospect.
“The strongest argument for impeachment was also the strongest argument against impeachment,” Schiff said — describing his dilemma about whether a future President would capitalize on an unsuccessful impeachment and act as though “they are beyond the reach of any form of accountability.”
“If you fail to impeach the President … what message does that send to the next President and the next Congress about whether this conduct is compatible with the office … If the President is impeached and acquitted in the adjudication by the Senate, what message does that send to the next President and the next Congress?” Schiff said.
Schiff also criticized the Republican party for refusing to “speak out and stand up in any way” against the President’s “egregious misconduct.”
However, the President’s actions threatening national security by inviting foreign interference into American campaigns align directly with the original motivations of the Constitution’s impeachment clause, Schiff said.
Schiff emphasized, though, that no decision had yet been made about whether to present articles of impeachment to the Senate.
When asked about what the President’s refusal to comply with Congressional orders meant for the idea of separation of powers, Schiff said it could be a lasting threat to that principle.
“If the administration can demonstrate by its blanket obstructionism that Congress is powerless to do its oversight, that will fundamentally alter the balance of power in our constitutional structure indefinitely,” Schiff said.
For example, he said, “Congress has sought information about the violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, prohibiting a president from enriching himself in office, particularly vis-a-vis, again, foreign powers: the administration has stonewalled those requests.”
Schiff also responded to an audience member’s question about quid pro quo deals, which drew attention to claims from Republican politicians that the President had not asked for quid pro quo help from the Ukrainian government.
“It is against the law to solicit foreign help in a U.S. election” — regardless of whether that solicitation is done quid pro quo, he said. However, in light of President Trump’s call to the Ukranian president and reports unveiling text messages regarding the call, a “strong suggestion of quid pro quo in terms of military assistance” to Ukraine against Russia is evident, Schiff said.
Schiff spoke about his experience with the Intelligence Community and President Trump’s attacks on the whistleblower who reported Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president — saying that “up until recently, the morale within the IC [Intelligence Community] was holding.”
However, he said that President Trump’s attempts to expose the whistleblower and suggestions that spies used to be executed were “an attack on the entire system” of whistleblowing.
“I have to think that the President’s attack on this whistleblower, who is either an employee, detailee, or contractor working within the IC, is having a real chilling effect on the professions within the IC,” said Schiff.
The final question from the audience zeroed in on whether decrying foreign interference in the American election — in light of the U.S. government propping up foreign governments in the past to serve its own interests — was hypocritical.
While “there is a very checkered past of how U.S. intelligence has been used” — naming past American interference in governments in Central America, South America, and Iran as examples — to not hold other countries accountable for their actions because of past American misdeeds was “uniquely damaging to the very idea of America,” Schiff said.
Schiff closed by exhorting Cornell students to participate in the civic and political process.
“We’re going through such an ugly and divisive period now,” but “I have every confidence that you will bring the change that is desperately needed,” he said.
“The best antidote to being demoralized about what’s going on is engagement” he added.