The congressman from Hollywood has landed his breakout role — investigating President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia — and it might be Adam Schiff’s path to the Senate.
As the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, the California congressman has become a daily, sometimes hourly, fixture on cable news, winning rave reviews from Democrats for his lawyerly and occasionally devastating takes on the Russia probe’s latest developments.
Schiff’s near-constant presence on TV is valuable in a state with 53 members of Congress who compete for attention with movie stars. And it’s practically a requirement for achieving name recognition in a state with eight major media markets that make it nearly impossible to reach voters through commercials.
His fast-rising profile is fueling speculation he might be laying the groundwork for a run for higher office — for the Senate or governor’s mansion, or maybe even the White House.
Schiff himself acknowledges harboring grander ambitions but adds the obligatory qualifiers in an interview: He’s busy with his current job and hopes that Dianne Feinstein, California’s 83-year-old senator, will seek reelection in 2018.
Statewide office is “certainly something I’ve thought about in the past and may think about in the future, but I have a pretty full plate as it is,” Schiff said.
Schiff allies like Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, another Democrat on the Intelligence panel, said Schiff has been given a major platform with the Russia investigation — and is capitalizing on it “beautifully.”
“There’s no question, as happens from time to time, the spotlight swung around and lit him up and he really rose to the occasion,” Himes said. “What he wants to do with that, I do not know.”
Several California newspapers have listed Schiff as a possible candidate for Senate if Feinstein decides to retire, while also noting the fourth-term senator appears to be preparing for another run. There are many other possible Democratic contenders, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, State Senate President Kevin de Leon, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, former Rep. Ellen Tauscher and billionaire Democratic activist Tom Steyer.
But Schiff’s frequent appearances on national TV, including a recent sit-down on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” would give him an advantage if the Senate seat opens up.
“You can’t buy that presence in California, particularly when you’re a member of Congress — there’s 435 of them, and 53 of them in California alone,’’ said longtime Democratic strategist Garry South, who has known Schiff for years and who ran gubernatorial campaigns for former Gov. Gray Davis and advised presidential candidates like former Sen. Joe Lieberman. “I can’t even think of the last time a House member got that kind of recognition.”
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and professor of public policy communication at the University of Southern California, said Schiff has catapulted in record time from locally-known House member to “symbol of [the] anti-Trump movement, and from the nation’s largest anti-Trump state.”
One of the reasons for Schiff’s success, she said, is his low-key style that serves as a direct contrast to Trump. At a time in which the occupant of the White House has specialized in bombastic tweets and statements, she said, the former federal prosecutor offers a contrast to many that looks like “sanity.”
That kind of platform has observers mulling what may lie ahead for the Burbank congressman. With the Democratic presidential nomination up for grabs in 2020, Bebitch Jeffe suggested Schiff could have a future even beyond the Senate. “President Schiff?” she asked. “Who knows what the possibilities are — remember Donald Trump?”
Veteran Southern California Democratic strategist Dave Jacobson said that in the wake of Schiff’s scrutiny of Russian interference in the 2016 election, “Adam Schiff’s profile has skyrocketed, and he’s hit Democratic all-star status, beyond just his own district in California.”
Schiff’s name is on the lips of “anyone who has a serious conversation about the possibility of U.S. Senate contenders should [Feinstein] not run,” he said. “He’s front and center, along with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti,” in part because “it’s no secret that he has ambitions to run for higher office. He’d be a formidable contender.”
Schiff also has something else that could serve his future political ambitions: a hefty war chest. Schiff has stockpiled about $2.1 million in his campaign fund, Federal Election Commission filings show. And in California, “to be a successful high-profile candidate for statewide office, you have to have close to $20 million you can raise and spend,’’ Jacobson said. “Having 10 percent of that in the bank puts you in a formidable position.”
The 56-year-old Schiff, now in his ninth term representing a congressional district north of Los Angeles, is an unlikely media star. The congressman is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, a panel designed to operate in the shadows. The committee, though, has repeatedly been thrust into the spotlight in recent years because of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and the 2012 Benghazi attacks.
The committee’s latest high-profile assignment is to investigate Russia’s covert effort to influence the presidential election, including the possibility of collusion with the Trump campaign.
As the panel’s ranking member, Schiff has little actual power beyond the ability to shine a spotlight on the inner workings of the Republican-led probe. But he has used the role to great effect as he has sought to rally the public to demand a thorough, nonpartisan assessment of Russia’s election meddling.
That has included sparring with the intelligence panel’s Republican chairman and fellow Californian, Devin Nunes, whom Schiff argued was too close to Trump to run an objective investigation.
Nunes announced earlier this month he was stepping aside from the Russia probe after the House Ethics Committee said it was investigating whether Nunes disclosed classified information when he accused the Obama administration of possible surveillance abuses against the Trump transition team.
Of course, if Schiff is seen as seeking to profit politically from the investigation, he risks undermining his own credibility as a leader of the probe.
Schiff said he has high hopes for the new Republican leader of the Russia investigation, Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas.
“I think he’s a serious guy and wants to conduct this investigation in a joint and nonpartisan way, and I’m committed to doing exactly the same thing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a very good partnership.”
Schiff, a Harvard Law School graduate, rose to prominence for prosecuting the first FBI agent to be convicted of espionage. The agent, Richard Miller, was caught in a Soviet sex-for-secrets plot in the 1980s.
Schiff said it feels “like I’ve come full circle.”
“A lot of the Russian motivations are not all that different than they were back when I was prosecuting that case,” he said. “I worked then quite extensively with the FBI. I’m working again quite extensively with the FBI.”
As for whether the investigation could be a springboard to higher office, Schiff said he has “got more than my hands full just focused on the day job.”
“With respect to the Senate,” he said, “I’m hoping that Sen. Feinstein will run for reelection. I think we could really benefit from her continued experience and leadership, so I certainly hope she will run again.”
Martin Matishak contributed to this report.