Representative Adam Schiff spoke at Duke University as part of the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture Series on October 30th, the same day Special Counsel Robert Mueller handed down the first indictment in the Trump-Russia investigation.
Schiff is the U.S. representative from California’s 28th district and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. As a member of the committee tasked with investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, Representative Schiff addressed questions about President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who had been indicted earlier that day, and former Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, who was currently cooperating with federal investigators. Schiff spoke to the difficulty in measuring the cumulative effect of advertisements, tweets, and cultural messages propagated by Russia prior to and continuing after the election. He spoke with concern about the weaponization of language, the polarization of the media, and the fear that democracy itself could be dismantled “brick by brick.”
And while Schiff has lived and breathed the particulars of the House investigation for nearly a year, he still challenged those in the audience to take a step back from it:
“What’s the bigger picture here? For everyone in this room, we’ve lived in a world that was ever expanding in its freedoms. And each year, more of us lived in democratic societies, and more of us had a free press, and more of us had the right to practice our faith and associate with who we would, but we may now be at a point where we cannot say that will be true next year.”
As Representative Schiff responded to each of moderator Bruce Jentleson’s questions, it became increasingly clear why he’d been chosen to speak as part of The Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture Series which focuses on bringing “men and women of the highest personal and professional stature” to Duke University. Schiff’s answers felt larger than the questions themselves. He didn’t just address the possible collusion, or the constitutional crisis the country might face were Trump to fire Mueller, he cut to the core of democracy itself—and to the individual role of every American within it.
Speaking passionately, but with his characteristic calm, Schiff made clear his belief in America as more than just a country, but an idea, too. “It’s incumbent on all of us, to be champions of that idea”.
Schiff said that growing up in Boston, President John F. Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you” was so much a cultural touchstone that it inspired him to a life of public service. But at the lecture he wondered aloud:
“Why would anyone want to get involved in something so crass, so ugly as our political environment right now? I feel like everyone in my generation should apologize in everyone in your generation for handing off a piece of work.”
But Schiff did more than apologize, he put out a call to action:
“We need you,” he said, looking out at the Duke students, faculty, and staff assembled. “We need you more than ever. With the incredible array of things going wrong, it’s tempting to say I’m not going to begin at all. And I would just say to you, don’t try to do it all. Just decide in the next year, or two years, or however long it takes, I’m going to make a difference on the thing I care most about.”
Congressman Schiff then paused, “We’re all going to be held to answer for what we do right now.” He returned to Washington D.C. the next day.
Meg Fee is a first-year student at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy focusing on food policy.