The man leading the battle to keep Russia out of the White House

Robert Philpot looks at the man who's investigating Russian meddling in last year’s US presidential election

April 06, 2017 13:58

As an attack dog, suggested the New York Times recently, Adam Schiff is “more labradoodle 
than Doberman”.

But the top Democrat on the congressional committee investigating Russian meddling in last year’s US presidential election is fast proving that his bite is just as bad as his bark.

Few in Washington would have predicted before Donald Trump took office that the softly spoken Jewish congressman would emerge as one of the president’s most potent foes.

Mr Schiff first sank his teeth into the allegations that the Kremlin was attempting to sway the election last September when he joined with California Senator Dianne Feinstein in publicly charging the Russians with trying to influence the outcome.

He has refused to let go since. In January, Mr Schiff secured an investigation by the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee. Last month, he used a 15-minute opening statement to methodically draw the dots between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Later in that session, and under questioning from Mr Schiff, FBI Director James Comey both revealed that the FBI was already investigating the alleged collusion, while also eliciting a confirmation that there was no evidence to support the president’s allegations — widely seen as a smokescreen — that his predecessor had tapped the phones at Trump Tower.

Mr Trump’s defenders struggle to dismiss Mr Schiff. While the Los Angeles district he represents includes Hollywood, he is hard to paint him as an archetypal West Coast liberal. After being elected to Congress in 2000, he staked out a reputation as a centrist: initially supporting both George W Bush’s tax cuts and the Iraq war and, more recently, being a leading voice in arguing for the use of force against Islamic State. Believing that his party too often cedes the ground on national security to the Republicans, he established a study group on the issue for his Democrat colleagues.

Those two attributes — his seeming lack of partisanship and national security credentials — are supplemented by the skills he learned as a former federal prosecutor. “He’s determined but he doesn’t overplay his hand,” one former congressional colleague told the American Jewish newspaper the Forward last week. “He’s careful and judicious,” suggested another. Those traits have previously served him well. In 1990, after two previous trials, Mr Schiff secured the first conviction of an FBI agent for espionage; it has escaped the notice of few that that case also involved the Russians.

Nonetheless, Mr Schiff’s attempt to uncover the truth about last year’s election faces some powerful obstacles, not least the apparent determination of the intelligence committee’s Republican chairman, Devin Nunes, to frustrate that effort. Last month, Mr Nunes claimed to have been passed evidence that members of Mr Trump’s campaign had been “incidentally” swept up in electronic surveillance of foreigners. The president falsely seized on Mr Nunes’ announcement as proof that Barack Obama had indeed been spying on him. Mr Nunes’ behaviour infuriated Mr Schiff, who called on the chairman to recuse himself from the probe.

But, in a further twist, it emerged last week that Mr Nunes’ information — the source of which he had refused to reveal — had actually been provided by the White House. That threw the media spotlight onto Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a 30-year-old Jewish aide to Mr Trump, who is alleged to have been one of two staffers responsible for passing the evidence to Mr Nunes. Mr Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, now stands accused of having attempted to use intelligence for political ends, although there is no suggestion that he broke any laws. For Mr Schiff, these new revelations suggest the administration and Mr Nunes had conspired to “attempt to distract” attention away from the question of Russian interference.

Mr Cohen-Watnick appears to have powerful friends in the Trump White House. He was initially recruited to the National Security Council by his former boss at the Defence Intelligence Agency, Michael Flynn. When Mr Flynn resigned as Mr Trump’s National Security Adviser in February over revelations about his contacts with the Russians, Mr Cohen-Watnick survived an attempt to replace him, apparently calling on the assistance of both Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon. Like Mr Flynn, Mr Cohen-Watnick is reported to have a low regard for the CIA and to hold hawkish views on Iran. “Ezra is really a big fan of covert-y action stuff,” one NSC official suggested to the Washington Post last month.

But Mr Cohen-Watnick may soon be forced to choose between his loyalties to Mr Trump and those to Mr Flynn, with the former National Security Adviser now said to be planning to testify before Congress if he is granted immunity from prosecution.

As to the future course of the investigation, the California congressman simply promises to stick to the facts. For Donald Trump’s White House, such an approach is as novel as it is potentially dangerous.

April 06, 2017 13:58

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