Schiff: ‘I Have Been Very Reluctant’ to Impeach, ‘But...’

By Susan Jones | September 23, 2019 | 7:00am EDT
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff react to Robert Mueller's testimony before the House Select Committee on Intelligence on July 24, 2019. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

( - Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House intelligence committee, told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that impeachment may be warranted if President Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine while pressing Ukraine's new president to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden's dealings in that country.

Getting ahead of the actual facts, Schiff made it clear that he doesn't know the "subject of the whistleblower complaint that has so far been withheld from Congress."

But, Schiff said, "[I]f the president of the United States is browbeating a foreign leader, at the same time he was withholding vital military assistance that Ukraine needed to defend itself against Russia, and trying to get dirt on his political opponent in yet a second campaign, then the country needs to know about it. And we need to take defensive steps."

Host Jake Tapper asked Schiff, "If the president did, in fact, in that phone call push the Ukrainian president to investigate Hunter Biden and Joe Biden eight times, as The Wall Street Journal reported, is it an impeachable offense, in your view?"

Schiff responded:

Well, Jake, you know I have been very reluctant to go down the path of impeachment, for the reason that I think the Founders contemplated, in a country that has elections every four years, that this would be an extraordinary remedy, a remedy of last resort, not first resort.

But if the president is essentially withholding military aid, at the same time that he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader into doing something illicit, that is, providing dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign, then that may be the only remedy that is co-equal to the evil that that conduct represents.

We're going to hear from the director of national intelligence on Thursday why he is the first director to withhold, ever, a whistle-blower complaint. And we are going to make sure that we get that complaint, that whistle-blower is protected.

And we're going to make sure that we find out whether the president has engaged in this kind of improper conduct. But it may be that we do have to move forward with that extraordinary remedy, if indeed the president is, at the same time withholding vital military assistance, he is trying to leverage that to obtain impermissible help in his political campaign.

Schiff said before Democrats launch impeachment proceedings, he wants to be sure "that we can persuade the public that this was the right thing to do.”

And part of persuading the public that impeachment is the right thing to do is making sure that the country understands that this was a last resort.

Now, some of the folks that you mentioned (Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) have been embracing impeachment from the very beginning. I don't think that's useful in making the case to the public that we did this reluctantly.

But the president is pushing us down this road. And if, in particular, after having sought foreign assistance and welcomed foreign assistance in the last presidential campaign as a candidate, he is now doing the same thing again, but now using the power of the presidency, then he may force us to go down this road.

I have spoken with a number of my colleagues over the last week, and this seems different in kind. And we may very well have crossed the Rubicon here.

Schiff said President Trump should release the transcript of his July phone call with the newly elected Ukraine president.

But shortly before Schiff was interviewed, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told CNN's "State of the Union" that conversations between world leaders "are meant to be confidential.

“And if every time someone, for political reasons, raised a question, and all of a sudden, those conversations were disclosed publicly -- and when you disclose them to Congress, lots of times, they leak into the press -- then why would world leaders want to have conversations together?" Mnuchin asked.

Schiff said confidentiality doesn't cover conversations involving "potential corruption or criminality or leverage being used for political advantage against our nation's interest."

"And that's what's at stake here," Schiff continued. "This would be, I think, the most profound violation of the presidential oath of office, certainly during this presidency, which says a lot, but perhaps during just about any presidency.

“There is no privilege that covers corruption. There is no privilege to engage in underhanded discussions. And, again, I don't know if this is the subject of the whistle-blower complaint. But if it is, it needs to be exposed.”

Asked if he's found evidence of a "quid pro quo" -- Trump withholding military aid for Ukraine unless the new president gave him dirt on the Bidens -- Schiff said it doesn't matter:

Well, look, it's not necessary for us to find evidence of a quid pro quo.

The fact that Ukraine understands that military aid is being withheld, and the fact that Ukraine understands, as does the president, that the president, if these allegations are correct, his number one demand of Ukraine is that they dig up dirt on his opponent, that's all you need.

You don't need an explicit quid pro quo to betray your country. And that's what it would represent if the president was engaged in that conduct.

Now, we know that Rudy Giuliani was engaged in that conduct. But it's one thing when it's done by the court jester. It's another when it's done by the man who would be king.

So we're going to have to get to the bottom of this. We're going to have to fight to make sure that we can expose what took place on that call, what took place in any other conversations between the administration and Ukraine, where they were improperly using the power of that office for dirt on his opponent.

The Ukraine foreign minister on Saturday was quoted as saying, "I know what the conversation was about and I think there was no pressure...This conversation was long, friendly, and it touched on many questions, sometimes requiring serious answers."

Schiff dismissed that comment as well:

"Look, Ukraine is in a very difficult position here.

“They were very -- and have been very eager to get a summit meeting with the president. They know how reliant they are on American assistance in the war. They have the long-simmering war with Russia in Ukraine, in a country that Russia still occupies.

“And they know that, while there has been a decision made to release this military aid, the decision to cut it off can be made at any time, and this president is nothing if not vindictive," Schiff said.

“So I don't envy the position of the Ukraine president. What I'm worried about are the actions of the American president. And I don't think we can rely on a country that is so beholden to the good graces of Donald Trump to be able to level with us on this."

Schiff said the acting director of national intelligence is violating the law by withhold the whistleblower complaint from Congress, when the intelligence community inspector general has described the complaint as "urgent."

"We need an answer," Schiff said. "If there's a fire burning, it needs to be put out. And that's why we're going to have to look at every remedy."

Schiff said the remedies include legal action and possibly withholding funding for the intelligence community.

"And if these two issues are, in fact, one issue, and relates to deplorable conduct, a violation of the president's oath of office, and a cover-up in terms of this whistle-blower complaint, then we're going to have to consider impeachment, as well, a remedy here," Schiff concluded.

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