Adam Schiff, chief prosecutor at Trump's impeachment trial

Paul HANDLEY
California Congresssman Adam Schiff, chosen to lead the Democratic team of impeachment managers who will prosecute the abuse-of-power case against President Donald Trump in the US Senate (AFP Photo/OLIVIER DOULIERY)

California Congresssman Adam Schiff, chosen to lead the Democratic team of impeachment managers who will prosecute the abuse-of-power case against President Donald Trump in the US Senate

California Congresssman Adam Schiff, chosen to lead the Democratic team of impeachment managers who will prosecute the abuse-of-power case against President Donald Trump in the US Senate (AFP Photo/OLIVIER DOULIERY)

Washington (AFP) - In 2000 Adam Schiff won his first election to Congress against James Rogan, a Republican who had angered many voters by serving as a prosecutor in the impeachment trial of Democratic president Bill Clinton.

Nineteen years later, Schiff is in Rogan's shoes: he was chosen Wednesday to lead the team of House impeachment managers prosecuting the case against Republican President Donald Trump.

No one says it's an honor. The intensely challenging case, to be broadcast nationally, is fraught with political risk for his party and himself, and likely without reward: however strong the evidence, the Republican-controlled Senate is expected to acquit Trump of abuse of power and obstruction.

But for the southern California congressman of nearly two decades, the case -- revolving around Trump's alleged efforts to seek Ukraine's help for his re-election, and holding up military aid to obtain it -- is a matter of principal.

- 'This road was necessary' -

Schiff, 59, says he was outraged by evidence the US president began pressuring Kiev for dirt on Democrats just one day after then special counsel Robert Mueller testified to Congress that Trump's campaign team had sought Russian help in the 2016 election.

That was a final straw for Schiff, who before that had resisted impeaching Trump.

"It was one thing when the president invited foreign interference as a candidate, when he couldn't use the power of his office to make it so," he said in December.

"It was another when, as president of the United States, he withheld hundreds of millions of dollars to coerce an ally, betray our national security and try to cheat in the next election."

"That told me, this president believes he is above the law and accountable to no one, and that this road was necessary."

- 'Logical, linear' -

The choice of Schiff to lead the prosecution team for Trump's Senate trial, set to begin on January 21, was no surprise.

He has held steady in the face of a full-force attack from Trump and his Republican allies as he led the impeachment investigation over the past four months, as chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

His appearance may evoke a grade-school teacher more than a seasoned former district attorney, but Schiff showed himself a wily investigator and interrogator.

His voice seldom rose as throughout repeated depositions and hearings he rebuffed attacks and efforts by Republicans to steer away from the allegations against the president.

When he talks publicly about the probe, Schiff speaks fluidly and eloquently without notes as he stresses the importance of the law, and Trump's alleged threats to US national security.

Schiff is "logical, linear, measured but forceful," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said.

- Hollywood and Harvard -

In Congress, Schiff represents the Hollywood-Burbank entertainment industry hub.

But his ultra-serious professional mien is rooted in a late 1980s case when, not long out of Harvard Law School, he prosecuted the first FBI agent ever jailed for spying for Moscow.

"I learned a lot about Russian tradecraft: how the Russians operate, who they target, the vulnerabilities they look for," he said in an interview last year.

That background took him to the House Intelligence Committee, which has spent much of recent years investigating how Russians aided Trump's 2016 election campaign.

A fit cyclist who at 50 completed a triathlon, he has shown no fatigue through the marathon probe and constant bullying from Trump.

Trump labelled him "corrupt politician Shifty Schiff," and "a very sick man," and in political rallies taunts the Democrat over his physical appearance.

"You little pencil-neck," Trump said at one recent rally. "He has the smallest shirt collar you can get."

Schiff never responds, turning the issue every time back to Trump's own behavior.

"He is not going to intimidate me," Schiff told CNN in December. "But this is precisely the kind of conduct Americans should not accept in the Oval Office."