Schiff book reveals how Republican loyalty to Trump threatened democracy

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff is best known for being the chief prosecutor in President Donald Trump's first impeachment trial, which ended with an acquittal. But in his new book, "Midnight in Washington," Schiff connects that episode to others in our recent history, including the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Schiff joins Judy Woodruff with more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    He is best known probably for being the chief prosecutor in former President Donald Trump's first impeachment trial. That case ended with an acquittal.

    But, in his new book, "Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff connects that episode to others in our recent history, including the January 6 Capitol riot.

    Chairman Schiff joined me here just a short time ago.

    Congressman Adam Schiff, thank you very much for joining us.

    If the title weren't jarring enough, you have also been saying that the risk of authoritarianism in this country has never been greater. Do you mean that?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA):

    I do.

    There's this dangerous flirtation in the Republican Party right now with autocracy. You see it reflected in some of their preeminent spokespeople, like Tucker Carlson extolling the model of Viktor Orban, the Hungarian wannabe dictator. You see conservative political conventions now being scheduled in Budapest.

    And you see Republicans around the country attacking the independent apparatus of our democracy, these elections officials, and trying to strip them of their powers and give them to partisan appointed officials or boards.

    And that is a direct threat to our democracy and a pathway to authoritarianism.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm struck in the book by — obviously, you focus a great deal on former President Trump, but how much you focus on Republican members of Congress.

    And you describe how many of them are good people who are persuaded to abandon their beliefs. This becomes a theme of the book. Give us an example of how you see their minds changing, their hearts changing.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    It is really a theme, a running theme in the book.

    And it goes back to something Robert Caro, the historian, once observed, that power doesn't corrupt as much as it reveals. And over the last five years, we have seen how power has revealed who certain people are. Bill Barr is a perfect example.

    Bill Barr, under the George Herbert Walker Bush administration, when he was first attorney general, was one kind of person. Surrounded, I think, by people of integrity, like the former president, we didn't get a sense of who he was.

    But later, tethered to a man without scruple like Donald Trump, we found that Bill Barr was also without scruple, that he would do almost anything to have a seat once again at the table of power. And there are so many other cautionary tales along those lines.

    But I also wanted to tell the story in this book about the heroes that emerged, the Marie Yovanovitches, the Bill Taylors, the Alexander Vindmans, those who showed great courage, because their example is what will lead us out of this darkness.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think — I mean, you call it darkness. I mean, do you see an end to the influence of Donald Trump?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    I do.

    And what really I think is such a terrible tragedy is, after we went through that horrible ordeal of the insurrection, there was a window when the Republican Party might have recaptured its identity as a party of ideas.

    You could see in Mitch McConnell the struggle about whether to throw Donald Trump overboard. With Kevin McCarthy, those pangs of conscience lasted about 30 seconds. But, with McConnell, you could see that he recognized what a disaster Donald Trump is for the country.

    But I think he concluded ultimately that, if he tried to throw Trump overboard, he himself would be thrown overboard. But at the end of the day, you have to ask, why are you in office anyway, if you're not going to do the right thing when the country really needs you?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You are clearly engaged in a number of things going on right now in Congress, but, in particular, the January 6 committee attempting to bring people who were close advisers to President Trump and potentially President Trump himself to testify.

    They don't seem to be cooperating, most of them. How do you plan to bring them before the Congress? I know there's talk about bringing the — saying they're in contempt of Congress, but do you really believe that, in the end, they're going to testify?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    I believe we're going to force them to testify, if they don't do so willingly.

    The reason why they feel they can thwart the law is, for four years, they were allowed to. Steve Bannon was subpoenaed during the Russia investigation. And he showed up with 25 questions that he would deign to answer written by the White House.

    And when even the Republicans expressed outrage at this, he knew — that is, Steve Bannon knew that the attorney general then, whether it was Jeff Sessions or Bill Barr, would never enforce the law against those covering up for the president of the United States.

    But it's a different Justice Department with Merrick Garland. It's a Justice Department that understands the rule of law, that no one is above that law. And if people don't come before our committee when they're subpoenaed or don't turn over what they're supposed to, we will vote to hold them in contempt, criminal contempt in the House.

    We will refer them for prosecution. And we expect the Justice Department to uphold the principle that no one is above the law.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, you refer several times in the book to lessons learned from — as you move through this process, the impeachment process.

    Are any of those lessons things that you can apply to what you're engaged in right now?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    Well, there are many lessons learned, and certainly some we can apply very easily. And that is moving very quickly to, for example, criminal contempt.

    Other lessons, though, bigger lessons, are much more difficult to effectuate. And I say that because one of the most powerful lessons, to me, was, there's no flaw in our Constitution, there's no problem with the remedy of impeachment. The problem isn't in the draftsmanship. The problem is that we don't have enough people in Congress willing to give the spirit of the founders — live up to the spirit of the founders in executing those provisions.

    If people don't appreciate the difference between right and wrong, if they're not willing to be truthful, if they won't give content to their oath of office, it doesn't matter how brilliant the laws or Constitution are; our democracy is going to founder. And that's why we are where we are.

    One party right now has given up being a party of ideology. It's become a cult around the former president. And as long as that is the case, we're going to be at risk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's a pretty discouraging conclusion.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    It is.

    But the remedy is engagement. There's nothing more debilitating than the idea that we're powerless to affect our circumstances. We can't all be Marie Yovanovitch, first in the breach, showing the way to stand up to the most powerful in the world, but we can all do our part in our private life, our public life, our civic and corporate life, at a time when our democracy really needs us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congressman Adam Schiff.

    The book is "Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could."

    Thank you very much.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    Thank you.

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