Rep. Adam Schiff on Jan. 6, Trump's coup and the "worst-case scenario" for America's future

Conscience of the Congress says he's "more worried about the health of our democracy" now than after Jan. 6

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 24, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Rep. Adam Schiff has repeatedly warned the American people and the world that Donald Trump and his movement represent an existential threat to democracy and freedom. In May of 2019, Schiff appeared on "ABC This Week" and said this:

I don't think this country could survive another four years of a president like this, who gets up every day trying to find new and inventive ways to divide us. He doesn't seem to understand that a fundamental aspect of his job is to try to make us a more perfect union. But that's not at all where he's coming from…. He's going to be defeated, he has to be defeated.

He was not sure, Schiff cautioned, "how much more our democratic institutions can take of this kind of attack on the rule of law."

Those warnings would prove to be all too true, in ways that too many Americans were afraid to admit. This denial of the extreme danger embodied by Trump, the Republican-fascist movement and the larger white right left the American people and the country's political class unprepared for the full-spectrum assault on democracy, freedom, decency, truth and even reality itself that would soon be summoned up.

During Trump's first impeachment trial, Rep. Schiff, in his role as the lead House manager, offered this prophetic moment of truth-telling:

We must say enough — enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again. He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What's right matters even less, and decency matters not at all…. Can we be confident that he will not continue to try to cheat in [this] very election? Can we be confident that Americans and not foreign powers will get to decide, and that the president will shun any further foreign interference in our democratic affairs? The short, plain, sad, incontestable answer is no, you can't. You can't trust this president to do the right thing. Not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can't. He will not change and you know it.

What are the odds, if left in office, that he will continue trying to cheat? I will tell you: 100 percent. A man without character or ethical compass will never find his way.

Those warnings came true in dramatic fashion on Jan. 6, 2021, when thousands of Donald Trump's followers, under his malignant influence, launched a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol as part of his coup attempt.

Undeterred by their failure to end American democracy on that day, Trump and the Republican fascists have only escalated their assaults. The future of America's democracy hangs in the balance; matters are dire. Ultimately, the American people must decide whether they want to save their democracy or surrender it to neofascism.

Adam Schiff has served in the House of Representatives since 2001, and now represents California's 28th congressional district, which includes parts of the city of Los Angeles and its northern suburbs. He is chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and led the first impeachment of Donald Trump.

Schiff is also currently a member of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Before his election to Congress, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and served in the California State Senate. His new book is "Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could."

In this conversation, Schiff explains what the average American can do to protect their democracy and the types of tangible actions and sacrifices that requires. He counsels that given the threats of violence from the Republicans and the larger neofascist movement against poll workers, civil rights activists and local election officials, some degree of fear is reasonable — but that saving American democracy will require courage and fortitude. Schiff also reflects on what it was like to be under siege at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and how that moment made it clear that Trumpism had fully conquered the Republican Party and the "conservative" movement.

Toward the end of this conversation Schiff responds to concerns that the American people will never learn the full truth about Donald Trump and his confederates' coup attempt.

Schiff also shares his belief and expectation that Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice will fully investigate Donald Trump for his apparent or alleged crimes — and then hold him fully accountable.

Given all the challenges and crises we face in America right now, and around the world, how are you feeling? How do you sleep?

I sleep very well. My problem is, I don't have enough time for all of my tasks. But when I do go to sleep, I usually fall asleep before my head hits the pillow. 

I'm more worried about the health of our democracy today than I was a year and a half ago. We were not at the darkest point a year and a half ago. When I was leaving the House floor after the events of Jan. 6, I truly thought that the country had reached the terrible end to which Donald Trump and Trumpism had brought us. 

When I was leaving the House floor after Jan. 6, I thought that would be the moment when the Republican Party would repudiate Donald Trump and everything he stood for. But that didn't happen.

Surely that would be the moment when the Republican Party would repudiate Donald Trump and everything he stood for. But that didn't happen. They have really clung ever more desperately to the Big Lie, and they've used that Big Lie to usher in a new generation of Jim Crow laws around the country to disenfranchise people of color, and voters more generally, as a way of attacking the infrastructure of our elections.

How are you maintaining your focus? What are you prioritizing? What advice do you have for folks who are feeling overwhelmed right now?

There are a great many people who do feel overwhelmed and who are at the point of despair. But the American people do not have the luxury of despair right now. We have a unique responsibility in this moment to defend democracy when it's at its greatest peril. This is truly a history-making moment.

But don't try to fix everything. Don't try to focus on every problem. Just decide, "This is what I'm going to do in the next few weeks, and then the next few months, to help serve my country." We can all influence the people around us, our peer group and larger social circle. The circle may be large or may be small, but it is something all of us can do. The key is to do something. There's nothing more debilitating than to feel that you're powerless to impact your circumstances.

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The reality is that none of us are powerless. We can all change the course of our country in ways both large and small. In terms of my own work and responsibilities, I take it one day at a time. There are certainly days when I get up and I think, "I've just got to make it through the day." And at the end of the day, I say to myself, "I'm surprised I'm still standing." But I'm going to keep at my post until we get through this storm. 

Democracy is something we do — it's not an abstract idea. To that end, what are some tangible things that people can do in this moment of crisis?

I think the paramount need right now is to protect the infrastructure of our elections. Be a poll watcher. If you have legal skills, volunteer your time to one of the legal organizations that are fighting voter disenfranchisement. Or if you have personal means and resources, contribute to one of the many wonderful groups that are protecting the vote and ensuring access to the franchise. 

People should follow their passions and interests because they'll enjoy the work more. They'll derive more satisfaction from it and they'll get more accomplished. Nobody has to reinvent the wheel now. There are lots of great organizations they can identify online.

Republicans and their allies are attacking civil society on every level. They are literally threatening the lives and safety of poll workers and people doing voter registration drives and voter mobilization. They are even attacking librarians. What do you tell those Americans who want to do this important work but are afraid for their lives and families? Is that fear reasonable?

I certainly understand the fear. And I thought that among the most powerful testimony we had during the Jan. 6 hearings was that of Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman. Ruby Freeman testified about what it was like when the most powerful person in the world, Donald Trump, then the president of the United States, targeted an American citizen. She made the important point that the president is supposed to protect American citizens, not target them. Ruby Freeman's daughter and mother were also targeted.

Yes, those threats are very real. That is a very sad and unfortunate reality. But we cannot allow those threats to intimidate us from doing our jobs and defending our democracy. Right now, from the depths of Mar-a-Lago, the former president is lashing out at the FBI, and his words are an incitement to violence. We see people acting on them, putting on a bulletproof vest and picking up a military style assault weapon and going to an FBI office in Cincinnati to shoot people. Again, the danger is real. People have to decide what they're comfortable with when every role or job is dangerous. There are a great many things that people could do to help from the privacy of their own home.

What do we mean by democracy? Why do Donald Trump and today's Republicans and "conservatives" hate true democracy, meaning multiracial, pluralistic "We the People" democracy?

We need to make democracy into something very tangible, very concrete, and not an abstract idea. In its broadest terms, democracy means that we, the American people, through our franchise, our right to vote, get to decide who should govern and therefore the direction of the country. The Republican Party has been moving away from that idea and toward autocracy.

They believe that an authoritarian strongman figure like Donald Trump should decide what is best for the American people. He summarized that view when he said, "I alone can fix it."

The Republican Party's move toward authoritarianism began several years ago. One of the canaries in the coal mine was in North Carolina, after a Democrat was elected governor.

The Republican Party's move toward authoritarianism began several years ago. One of the canaries in the coal mine was in North Carolina, after a Democrat [current Gov. Roy Cooper] was elected governor. The Republican Party in North Carolina responded not how the parties in this country have historically responded, which is by saying, "Next time we'll do better. And next time we'll come up with better ideas or better policies or a better way to message our ideas." Instead, the Republicans decided to strip the governor of many of his powers and responsibilities. That represented an attitude that said, "If we lose, we're going to change the rules of the game, so we don't lose again," rather than trying to win over people through democratic means and appealing to their intellect, their intelligence, their passion and their ideas. 

There were other canaries in the coal mine as well. Mitch McConnell decided he would not even give President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court a hearing. That was a decision by McConnell that American democracy wasn't as important as his desire to gain and keep power. He would tear down these institutions little by little for more power. 

Another example was when Donald Trump attacked democracy by using the Justice Department to go after his enemies. Trump also tried to use the federal workforce as an arm of his campaign. If a president can keep themselves in power by forcing federal employees into essentially supporting his campaign, that is another body blow to our democracy.

You were in the Capitol on Jan. 6. What was going through your mind during that ordeal?

I wrote about this in "Midnight in Washington." I was on the House floor. I had suggested to the speaker that we establish a small group to try to anticipate all that might go wrong with the 2020 election or its aftermath. As a result, I was one of the House managers opposing the effort to decertify the election. 

I really wasn't paying attention to what was going on down at the Mall until I looked up. I noticed that the speaker was no longer presiding. Then Capitol Police came on the floor, and they rushed away our No. 2, Steny Hoyer [the majority leader], and came back and made a series of increasingly severe announcements about rioters being in the building and the need to get out gas masks, the need to be prepared to get down on the ground and then, ultimately, that we needed to evacuate.

I remember waiting by the exit to let other people go ahead. A couple of Republicans came up to me and one said, "You can't let them see you," meaning the insurrectionists. And the other said, "He's right. I know these people. I can talk to them. I can talk my way through them. You're in a whole different category." At first I was touched by their evident concern for my safety, but my next impulse was to think, if these SOBs hadn't been lying about the election, I wouldn't need to worry about my safety and nobody else would either.

I was also horrified by how the rest of the world must be perceiving this. To see these images of insurrectionists climbing up the Capitol, breaking through the glass, desecrating the Capitol, defecating on the floors. The great injury that our country and its image suffered from this, and more generally what the Trump years did to the country's prestige and standing in the world, was heartbreaking to me.  

The great injury that our country and its image suffered from [Jan. 6], and from what the Trump years did to the country's prestige and standing in the world, was heartbreaking to me.

The hardest thing to see were these Confederate flags and "Camp Auschwitz" T-shirts and other such horrible things. That told me that this was more than a Trumpist insurrection. Jan. 6 was also a white nationalist insurrection, and the road to recovery for our country was going to be much longer and much harder than I would have thought originally.

I have a lot of questions about what happened on Jan. 6. The role of the Secret Service, for instance, is an obvious unanswered question. It looked like a stand-down order had been given to the military and law enforcement. There's the question of the role of Republicans in Congress in the coup attempt and the Capitol attack. There are so many questions to be asked and answered. Will the American people ever get the full picture of what happened that day? 

It's very difficult to say how much we have not been able to uncover. We learned a tremendous amount. I thought I understood the insurrection well because I'd been there that day. I'd witnessed what happened. I followed the events thereafter very carefully. But during the course of our investigation, we've interviewed over 1,000 people. We've gathered tens of thousands of documents, and we've learned so much more about the multiple lines of effort that went into overturning the election. 

One of the most important takeaways of the investigation is that it wasn't just the 6th of January. Moreover, it wasn't just a violent attack on the Capitol. This attack on American democracy involved a pressure campaign against state and local officials to try to get them to overturn the results. There was bogus litigation filed all over the country. There was an effort to decapitate the leadership in the Justice Department. There was an effort to force the vice president into ignoring his constitutional duty. There was a fake elector scheme.

It was only when all of these things and more failed to achieve Trump's desired outcome of overturning the election that they resorted to a violent attack on the Capitol. Some of the evidence of that has been so graphic, so disturbing. One of the things that stands out to me from the hearings was the testimony of top Justice Department people, people that Trump appointed, sitting with him in the Oval Office. They were going through his bogus claims of fraud and telling him, "That's nonsense. That's BS. That's not true. There's nothing there." What's Trump's response? "Just say the election is corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republicans."

I'm a former prosecutor. That's the kind of clear evidence of malign and criminal intent that you look for in an investigation. He demonstrated a recognition that the claims of fraud are bogus and a willingness to ask people just to lie about it and leave the rest to him. 

This is in the same vein as the testimony we had about Donald Trump on the Mall on Jan. 6, being told by the Secret Service that his supporters wouldn't go through the metal detectors because they were armed, and they didn't want up to give up their arms. What's his answer? "Take down the magnetometers. They're not here to hurt me."

Are there other things where, because of the unwillingness of the people closest to the president to cooperate, we don't know and may not find out? I'm sure there are. But we have learned enough.

The public would have never known these things if not for our investigation. Are there other things like that, where because of the unwillingness of the people closest to the president to cooperate, we don't know and may not find out? I'm sure there are. But we have learned enough to know what a terrible danger to the country Donald Trump represents. We hope that the Justice Department will do its part, and do a vigorous investigation of its own, so that the country can learn more and all the wrongdoers can be brought to justice.

As a former prosecutor and a public servant, what does justice and accountability look like for Trump and his confederates, both for Jan. 6 but also more generally? My concern is that if Donald Trump is repeatedly accused of breaking the law and is never convicted and punished, he will become more powerful because his claims of victimhood will appear more legitimate.

Our responsibility is to conduct vigorous oversight and propose reforms to protect the country going forward. It really will fall on the Justice Department to bring about the other forms of accountability, which means prosecuting those people who have violated the law and to seek the appropriate sentence. The Justice Department needs to be held to the standard they established at the beginning, which is that they would follow the evidence wherever it leads, because the evidence has been leading to the former president. There can only be one standard for the rule of law.

If Donald Trump and this version of the Republican Party get their way, what will happen to America? What will the country's democracy look like?

It won't be a democracy anymore. The worst-case scenario is not that Donald Trump runs again and wins but rather that he runs again and loses, and they succeed in overturning the election. Then you no longer have a democracy. You have a political strongman making the decisions. It is one-man, one-party rule. 

What will that mean on a practical level for people's everyday lives?

It means they don't get to decide anymore. They don't get to decide through their representatives if they want lower prescription drug prices, like the bill we just passed. They don't get to decide whether we invest in attacking the problem of climate change or whether we just continue to burn fossil fuels until the earth is destroyed, because that decision is now made by an autocrat.

It means that people do not have reproductive freedoms and control over their own bodies. It's all being decided by the occupant of the Oval Office. Ultimately, if the Republicans and Donald Trump and others like him get their way, then the American people will lose any say in their personal futures and the future of our country.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Adam Schiff Authoritarianism Coup Democracy Democrats Donald Trump Fascism Interview Jan. 6 Republicans