Updated August 9
According to U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, America needs to return to “basic decency.”
As part of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center’s summer institute, Schiff gave a wide-ranging talk at Old Whaling Church in Edgartown on the threat to democracy at home and abroad. He seamlessly moved from topics including Russian election meddling, deep fake technology, social media, and gun violence to President Donald Trump, and dinner with Bono, Bill Gates, and John McCain.
Schiff has represented California’s 28th congressional district since 2001. Known for his leadership on foreign policy, national security, and his grappling with issues like the Armenian genocide, he currently serves as the chair of the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. For the past two years Schiff — aside from special counsel Robert Mueller III — has been the face of inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The sold-out event had people squeezing into pews and even standing in the back to listen to the nearly two-hour talk. When Schiff walked onstage and when he finished, he was met with a standing ovation.
Evidence of Russian meddling appeared in 2016 while former President Barack Obama was still in the White House. Schiff wanted to go public with the information, but saw pushback from Republicans and the Obama administration, which was concerned that if it weighed in too heavily it would be accused of trying to influence the outcome.
“The Trump campaign, including the candidate himself, were more than happy to welcome, to build it into their communications, and their campaign strategy to make full use of it, and then to lie about it,” Schiff said.
Trump’s denial of Russian interference has raised red flags for Schiff. When Trump appeared on “The Sean Hannity Show,” Hannity asked why Trump wouldn’t criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The president’s response was, ‘Are we so different?’” Schiff said.
One of the biggest questions involving Russian meddling in the election has been, Why?
“Putin is terrified of the power of people to gather in massive numbers and displace their autocratic rulers,” Schiff explained. “This is part of the reason he was so intimidated by Hillary Clinton, by how she would speak out in favor of protestors in Russia and elsewhere.”
He went on to add that election meddling is part of a larger ideological trend: “All over the globe … we see a raise of the autocrats. We are in a new ideological struggle that is not communism versus capitalism, but it is authoritarianism versus representative democracy,” he said.
Schiff’s biggest fears for the next election are insecure voting technology and the threat of deep fake technology. Deep fake technology is completely convincing, but fraudulent, video or audio. Schiff said soon the naked eye will be unable to tell the difference between fake videos and photos on social media. He said a recent video, tweeted by Trump, of the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi appearing drunk or impaired was a “cheap fake” — something easily made and noticeably fake. “I can’t imagine anything more corrosive to a democracy than an environment in which you can’t tell what’s true anymore,” Schiff said.
Schiff touched on surveillance technologies being used in China and elsewhere. Trump’s criticism of America’s allies and his relationships with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, and Putin are at odds with what Schiff says should be an American president’s priorities.
“This is the time — if there was ever a time — when we need the president of the United States to be the champion of democracy, to be the champion of human rights, but of course this is not at all what we have,” he said.
Two years ago, Schiff attended a dinner with the late U.S. Senator John McCain, Bono, and Bill Gates at a conference in Munich, Germany. Schiff was struck when Bono said he was proud of his home country of Ireland, but said Ireland, like most countries, was just a country — America was an idea.
“The minute he said it, I realized this is what is really at risk right now — the very idea of America,” Schiff said. “That is the America that is a melting pot. That is the America that welcomes people from all over the world.”
Looking ahead to the 2020 presidential election, he said the next Democratic presidential candidate needs to run on a platform of “basic decency.”
“You could pluck anyone off the street at random and they would be a better president of the United States,” he said. “They would be decent, they would be compassionate, they would be patriotic … those are all qualities the president lacks.”
Closing out his talk, Schiff offered some final comments. “I think we’re going through an awful and dark time,” Schiff said, referring to Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and the recent shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Despite his apprehension, he gave the audience some hopeful ending remarks. “The wonderful thing is there is a role for each and every one of us,” Schiff said. “It’s all of our obligation to see the country through this time and reclaim our legacy.”
This story was updated to include more details from the event.