As Trump impeachment probe goes public, Schiff takes center stage

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Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has emerged as a key figure in the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump

Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has emerged as a key figure in the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump (AFP Photo/SAUL LOEB)

Washington (AFP) - Adam Schiff, the head of the Democrats' investigation of President Donald Trump, sought Hollywood glory in his younger days as a prosecutor by crafting a screenplay for a thriller.

That didn't go anywhere, but Schiff is now about to hit the small screen big-time starring in his own legal procedural: The Impeachment of a President.

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Schiff on Wednesday will gavel in the first open hearing of the investigation into whether Trump violated his oath of office and the law in seeking help from Ukraine for his 2020 re-election campaign.

In appearance, few might have cast Schiff, 59, as the Democrats' attack dog to take down a Republican leader who is fighting tooth and nail to save his presidency.

A California congressman representing the Hollywood-Burbank entertainment industry hub, he has the looks more of a vicar or a primary school principal. He never raises his voice, and rarely strays into hyperbole.

That gave his quietly delivered outrage at the news in September of Trump's Ukraine dealings even more impact.

Trump's demand in a July phone call for a "favor" from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky reflects "a classic mafia-type shakedown of a foreign leader," Schiff said.

"This is how a mafia boss talks: 'What have you done for us?'"

Trump has blasted back that Schiff fabricated his words, and now does not miss a chance to mock him as "Shifty Schiff" or even, as he has done in his rallies, as "Little Pencil-Neck."

In tweets Monday, Trump said, "Schiff must testify as to why he MADE UP a statement from me," and "Corrupt politician Schiff should be investigated for fraud!"

When Schiff last month described Trump's call to Zelensky, however, he made clear he was outlining "the essence of what the president communicates," not his exact words.

- 'Measured but forceful' -

As mild-mannered as he appears, Schiff has proven to be a focused and determined investigator, and a tough one. He's a fit cyclist who at 50 completed a triathlon.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi chose him, rather than the expected choice of Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, to lead the impeachment effort.

Schiff is "logical, linear, measured but forceful," she said.

His approach is rooted in a late 1980s case, when Schiff, not long out of Harvard Law School, 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 recounted earlier this year to Zach Dorfman of the Aspen Institute Cyber and Technology program.

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

- An intensified gaze -

Schiff has handled the impeachment inquiry with seriousness, showing limited patience for efforts by Republican colleagues to make the procedure more political.

Transcripts of testimony taken behind closed doors last month show him wielding a firm hand as Republicans try to discredit witnesses and change the subject.

That will only intensify under the gaze of an audience on national television.

After resisting impeachment for months, Schiff now says the evidence is strong -- going beyond Trump's July 25 phone call demanding a "favor" from Zelensky.

In the coming hearings, he wrote in USA Today, "Americans will hear directly from dedicated and patriotic public servants about how they became aware that US foreign policy had been subverted for the president's personal political interests."

"While temperatures might run high and the temptation to turn this solemn process into a political circus could be irresistible to some, I hope that all members of Congress and the public will focus on the facts and the substance of the testimony, not on politics or partisanship."