To win his first election to Congress in 2000, Adam Schiff defeated James Rogan, a Republican who had been among Bill Clinton’s most vocal critics during his impeachment trial.
Nearly two decades later, Mr Schiff, 59, is now a central figure in a different impeachment probe, as chairman of the House intelligence committee and de facto leader of the Democrats’ investigation into Donald Trump.
A longtime ally of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — the then-junior congresswoman from California raised money for Mr Schiff’s first congressional campaign — Mr Schiff has been tasked with leading the impeachment inquiry after top Democrats were disappointed by the House judiciary committee’s handling of Robert Mueller’s investigation.
For Democrats, the former prosecutor represents a safe pair of hands to steer the politically precarious proceedings. For Republicans, Mr Schiff is now public enemy number one, having even earned the dubious distinction of his own Twitter nickname from the president: “Shifty Schiff.”
A member of the New Democrat Coalition — a group of centrists who describe themselves as “moderate” — Mr Schiff has long demonstrated an interest in national security issues, having set up the Democratic study group on national security policy after September 11, 2001. Described by colleagues as careful and deliberate, he represents California’s 28th congressional district, an overwhelmingly Democratic area that includes wealthy neighbourhoods like West Hollywood and Burbank. A former prosecutor who gained notoriety for leading the case against Richard Miller, a former FBI agent who was convicted of espionage, the congressman shares a name with a fictional district attorney who featured on the television show Law & Order in the 1990s.
Steve Israel, the former congressman from New York who calls Mr Schiff his best friend, said he is “perfect” for leading the impeachment probe “because he blends the skills of a former federal prosecutor with the deep knowledge of intelligence matters”.
Unlike Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the House judiciary committee, Mr Schiff held off on calling for an impeachment inquiry into the US president until late this summer, when a whistleblower from the intelligence community raised red flags over a July 25 phone call between Mr Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Republican National Committee has repeatedly accused Mr Schiff of parlaying the House’s investigations in Mr Trump into cable news appearances for his own personal gain. Last year, the RNC released a report saying Mr Schiff had participated in more than 200 television interviews in the president’s first year in office. In Washington, many expect Mr Schiff to run for US Senate when Dianne Feinstein, the 86-year-old senior senator from California, eventually retires.
More recently, House Republicans sought to censure Mr Schiff for “misleading the American people” and making a “mockery of the impeachment process” when he parodied Mr Trump’s July 25 phone call in a televised congressional hearing.
Mr Schiff, who was once an aspiring screenwriter and is said to be able to recite full scenes from the film The Big Lebowski, had likened the US president to a mafia boss: “I have a favour I want from you though. And I’m going to say this only seven times so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent, understand? Lots of it.”
The censure failed on party lines.
Republicans have nevertheless continued to attack Mr Schiff for how he is conducting the impeachment inquiry and claimed the proceedings, which have so far primarily consisted of closed-door depositions, lacked transparency.
The inquiry will move into a new public phase in the coming weeks, with live televised hearings, after the majority of the House backed a resolution last week setting out the next steps in the investigation.
Yet Republicans, who all voted against the resolution, said it was not enough. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming congresswoman who chairs the House Republican Conference, said of Mr Schiff and the Democrats: “They cannot go back and fix what is a fundamentally tainted and unfair record.”
Mr Schiff’s allies insist the Republicans’ attacks are baseless.
“There is only [one] reason why President Trump is going after Adam Schiff, and that is because President Trump views Adam Schiff as a major threat,” said Mr Israel. “For most of his presidency, the president and the Republicans tried to vilify the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi because they viewed her as so effective. Now, they are trying to Pelosi-fy Adam Schiff.”
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