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

The Jewish Chronicle - - WORLD NEWS -

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: ini­tial- ly 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 Co­henWat­nick, 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.


Spy thriller: Schiff (main pic­ture) and (be­low, from left) Co­henWat­nick and Trump

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