Book Review: ‘Midnight in Washington,’ by Adam Schiff – The New York Times

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MIDNIGHT IN WASHINGTON
How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could
By Adam Schiff
The impact of Donald J. Trump’s presidency on the Republican Party has been a story well told, from reporters and scholars to Republicans of all stripes. Less frequently related, to the detriment of the reading public and the American voter, has been Trump’s impact on the Democratic Party.
Few Democrats at the outset of 2016 believed he could be nominated, let alone win the presidency. “The G.O.P. is not that suicidal” and the “Democratic Party is not that lucky,” Representative Adam Schiff of California assured audiences that year. So naturally, when Trump became the Republican standard-bearer, Democratic lawmakers were at once horrified and delighted. They were shocked Republicans would nominate somebody they viewed as wildly unfit for the job but thrilled because surely the electorate would reject a crass demagogue and the party that enabled him.
Voters would eventually punish Republicans, but it took Trump’s failed campaign for a second term before Democrats were able to claim control of the White House, House and Senate. In the meantime, Democratic leaders were left to grapple with what his ascent said about the country, their colleagues and the very system of American government.
Few Democratic officials have done so in print, however, because they are still serving and because the Trump story is still unfolding. Schiff is one of the first to try to account for the last five, tumultuous years in American politics. As the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a top lieutenant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Schiff is well positioned to deliver insights on the time of Trump, at least from the perspective of a Democratic insider.
“Midnight in Washington” delivers on that promise. Fittingly for a regular on television news shows, Schiff’s volume reads like a well-composed MSNBC segment on the Trump presidency — but with behind-the-scenes details on the working of Congress to go with the liberal commentary. The book is also something of a midlife memoir, as Schiff recalls his career as a prosecutor, his early campaigns and his first years in Congress following his 2000 election. There are recurring touches about his wife, Eve — yes, he notes, Adam and Eve — and some attempts at grounding himself by recounting how his two children responded to his Trump-era fame. (His daughter, borrowing Trump’s favorite insult for him, told him why so many strangers now recognized him: “Well, Dad, it’s the pencil neck.”) Mostly, though, this is a blistering indictment of Trump and his Republican enablers set alongside a what-I-saw-at-the-revolution account of Schiff’s role investigating Trump’s misdeeds.
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The 61-year-old congressman is, understandably, appalled at Trump’s blithe disregard for the country’s foundational political norms. To read this recent history is to remember how brazen Trump was when, for example, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked him in 2019 if in his 2020 re-election bid he’d accept information from a foreign power on an opponent or contact the F.B.I. “I think maybe you do both,” Trump replied, adding: “I think I’d take it.”
The heart of the book is the first impeachment of the former president: Schiff oversaw the inquiry from his committee perch and then served as the lead impeachment manager. He moves far more quickly through Jan. 6 and the second, more historically significant impeachment, in part because he was not as central a figure in those events.
In more readable prose than most politicians are known to produce, Schiff recounts his conversations at high-stakes moments during Trump’s tenure. There was the time he and Pelosi determined that, with evidence growing that Trump had pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joseph R. Biden Jr., they decided to drop their longstanding reluctance to pursue impeachment. Speaking with Pelosi on his cellphone in a parking lot in September 2019, Schiff told her he thought it was time to move ahead on impeachment — but that he was appearing on a Sunday television news show the following day and did not want to get ahead of her. “You just tell ’em what you think,” the speaker responded in her clipped style, before taking his measure one last time as they hung up: “Are you ready to do this?” she asked.
Just as vivid, if certainly one-sided, are Schiff’s vignettes about his Republican colleagues on the Intelligence Committee. Revealing conversations and text messages, he portrays them as reasonably good-faith actors at the outset of Trump’s tenure before becoming foot soldiers for the White House. These are names only the most committed political follower will recognize — Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy, Michael Conaway — but in some ways their stories are more telling, and certainly fresher, than one more account of Trump raging in the Oval Office.
After Schiff was told that Gowdy, a now-retired South Carolinian, was uneasy about holding public hearings into connections between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, Schiff tracked down his colleague in the Republican cloak room. In Schiff’s telling, Gowdy confessed that the real reason for his reluctance was that Republican lawmakers felt the then-F.B.I. director James Comey’s recent public testimony, acknowledging a federal investigation into Trump’s campaign, had been “an unmitigated disaster.”
“Now things began to make a perverse sense,” Schiff writes, adding: “The hearing was a disaster in their eyes precisely because the public learned Trump campaign officials were under investigation, and that was evidently a fact that some of the Republican members of our committee would have preferred to remain secret.” This and similar realizations left Schiff in a state of near-despair about the opposition, although he had had congenial relationships with many of them through his career in Congress.
For example, he once got along well with Nunes, a fellow Californian: The two would text about their favorite N.F.L. team, the Raiders. They both served on the House Intelligence Committee when Republicans were in the majority during the Obama years, and Nunes, Schiff writes, was “in the mold of a country club Republican.” Recounting Nunes’s transition to loyal MAGA man in the first year of Trump’s presidency, however, Schiff offers little by way of explanation. The only apparent attempt Schiff made to get through to Nunes resulted in his Republican colleague acting like something of a zombie. “He stared back at me impassively,” Schiff says.
Schiff writes thoughtfully in the first chapters about the appeal of populist demagogues overseas, and how it could happen here, but he is less eager to delve too deeply into why Republican lawmakers fell into a Trump trance. Perhaps as a serving congressman, he senses political danger in pointing a finger at Republican voters who have made their party a personality cult.
This suggests one reason that, as a genre, books by active politicians are typically not very edifying. Self-serving and less than candid about those they’ll need to further their careers — be they donors, voters or colleagues — the authors usually produce accounts that are closer to extended political pamphlets than works of history. Schiff’s is better than most, offering valuable contributions to the historical record. However, he’s still constrained by his present position and future ambitions.
He muffles even mild criticism of Democratic lawmakers, though he’s clearly tempted to let loose as he alludes to those who, unlike him, have never faced a contested race. “Listening to the debates among my colleagues in Congress from time to time, I wished that all of them had run in a competitive general election just once,” he writes. Please, Mr. Schiff, go on.
Perhaps he will when he retires.
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