U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, spoke at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House on Thursday about threats to democracy. The California congressman discussed the investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and a controversial Republican memo alleging government surveillance abuses.
In a discussion with PWH Director William Burke-White, Schiff spoke for more than an hour to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200, including Penn students, alumni, faculty and staff. Tens of thousands more watched on a livestream video.
Among the many news-making statements Schiff made was to call on Republican U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes of California to resign as chairman of the intelligence committee. “Should he step aside? Yes,” Schiff said in response to a question from Burke-White. “We need someone credible leading the investigation.”
Schiff and Nunes are at the center of a heated controversy surrounding a Republican-drafted memo alleging surveillance abuses by the FBI that may be made public.
“There is no more timely issue in American politics today than the Russian investigation,” Burke-White said, “so to have Congressman Adam Schiff here at Penn at literally the moment the dueling memos are being debated in the House is just truly extraordinary.
“While he represented only one side of the story, he represented the larger issues of a broken Congress and the dangers posed by foreign interference and how external threats and the fragility of our own democracy from within and how Russia has exploited that.”
On Wednesday night before coming to Penn, Schiff accused Nunes of making “material changes” to the memo approved by the committee majority before sending it to the White House to consider its public release. In a letter to Nunes, Schiff accused him of “deliberately misleading” the committee and demanded that Nunes withdraw the “altered” version of the memo.
The Republican effort to release the memo, Schiff said “is to put the government on trial” and take the focus off the investigation. Schiff has fought to block the release of the memo, which he said has highly classified information and has not been sufficiently reviewed by the FBI, the Department of Justice or committee members.
During the presidential election and continuing today, Schiff said, the Russian government was “trying to sow discord in the United States and undermine our very democracy” through a cyber campaign, primarily in social media.
“I think the Russians are astounded at just how fragile our democracy turned out to be. That they could poke it with a pin it would burst,” said Schiff. “I think it has been a catastrophic success for them.”
However, the threat from the divisions in the country are of more danger to democracy than the international threats, Schiff said.
“The threat from Russia to our democracy is now far less than the threat from within. There is nothing Russia can do to us that rivals what we are doing to ourselves right now,” he said.
Warning of the “rise of authoritarianism all around the word,” he said, “this is a time when America needs to be a vigorous champion of democracy at home and abroad.”
Schiff said the Russian investigation is like a “fast-moving Watergate” that may lead to a criminal referral to Congress for impeachment of the president.
“None of us know where this is going to end,” he said, adding that he thinks there is “another big turn coming” coming in the investigation.
Many of those in the Perry World House crowd were Penn students from schools across the University. Students from Schiff’s California district had the opportunity to meet him in private before the public talk.
“It’s wonderful to come here,” Schiff said, “and meet these bright and idealistic young people who are going to rescue us from ourselves, and who hold such promise for the future. They are leading the way. They are becoming active like never before. They are not only asking what can they do for our country who needs us, but they are doing it.”