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It’ll take character to head off further Russian election meddling, Schiff says

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, pictured in this file photo, told an audience at Duke University on Monday that the country’s leaders need to stand firm against renewed meddling by Russia in U.S. elections.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, pictured in this file photo, told an audience at Duke University on Monday that the country’s leaders need to stand firm against renewed meddling by Russia in U.S. elections. AP

As bad as Russian meddling was in the 2016 presidential election, it may well be worse next time around unless both parties agree they won’t tolerate it again, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence says.

In all the Russians’ propaganda effort ahead of last year’s vote, the one thing they didn’t resort to was inserting forgeries into the flow of documents about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign they stole and leaked, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of Los Angeles said Monday evening at Duke University.

Then and now, there’s “nothing to prevent” them from deploying forgeries, and in the heat of a highly partisan election the target would never be able to prove their phoniness, said Schiff, one of the leading critics of President Donald Trump.

The only defense would be a “national consensus” to reject a second intervention, regardless of whom that ultimately hurts or benefits, he said, adding that “the single biggest impediment to gaining that consensus is a president of the United States that says this is all a hoax.”

Schiff continued that both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain – the Republican presidential nominees in 2012 and 2008 – “would’ve had the strength of character to say, ‘Russia, butt the hell out,’” had similar events transpired ahead of those elections.

But this time around, “we didn’t have that, and it was disastrous,” he said, recalling Trump’s campaign-trail quips publicly encouraging the Russians to obtain and leak information about Clinton.

Schiff’s long-scheduled appearance at Duke happened to coincide with the announcement of the first indictments resulting from the ongoing special-prosecutor’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s dealings with the Russians.

One of Trump’s former campaign managers, Paul Manafort, now stands accused of conspiracy, money laundering and concealing his business relationship with pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians. Another former aide, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his own contacts with the Russians.

As he has in other forums, Schiff stressed that former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor, needs both time and room to complete the criminal investigation and that both are threatened by Trump and his allies.

But Schiff says it’s ultimately up to Congress, not Mueller, to investigate and give the public a complete accounting of “the length and breadth of what happened.”

And the stakes couldn’t be higher because the Russians, more than just influencing a single election, appear bent on deploying propaganda through social media and other channels to tear down “the whole idea of liberal democracy” globally.

Thanks in no small part to economic problems, the world might be “at an inflection point” that sees freedom begin to wane.

“For everyone in this room, we’ve lived in a world that was ever-expanding in its freedoms,” Schiff said. “Each year, more of us lived in democratic societies around the world, more of us had a free press, more of us had the right to practice our faith and associate with who we would. But we may now be at a point where we cannot say that will be true next year.”

This is a time when we really need a champion of democracy and human rights in the Oval Office, but that is not what we have.

U.S. Rep Adam Schiff

He said the world’s undergoing a “real rise of the autocrats,” judging from recent happenings in Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Turkey, France, Germany and Austria.

It’s “a time when we really need a champion of democracy and human rights in the Oval Office, but that is not what we have,” Schiff said, adding that it’s up to the citizenry of the U.S. to make sure “the very idea of our country ... still resides in all of us.”

Schiff’s comments were of a piece with those voiced in major speeches this month by two prominent Republicans, Arizona U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake and former President George W. Bush.

Bush’s Oct. 19 talk, in New York City, was noteworthy for saying the Russian government “has made a project of turning Americans against each other” and that there “are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned,” perhaps from some “combination of weariness, frayed tempers and forgetfulness.”

Schiff alluded directly to Flake’s Oct. 24 speech on that Senate floor that saw him lament “the coarseness of our leadership” before announcing that he won’t seek re-election.

The move was interpreted by Trump as Flake’s concession that he was unlikely to win again. But Schiff said Flake is an adroit enough politician that he could have found a way, save for one thing.

“The reason why he is in such jeopardy, politically, is because in the presidential campaign, he saw somebody who was unfit for office and was willing to say so,” Schiff said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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