The Democrats Turn From Resistance to Opposition

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As Democrats prepare to take power in the House, it’s worth looking at a peculiar paradox at the heart of their “resistance”: Historically it has been a movement against the national security state. The Democratic version of the resistance has sought to defend it.

If there is one lawmaker who embodies this paradox, it is a soft-spoken Californian named Adam Schiff. See his open letter this year to the FBI, assuring the bureau that millions of Americans still hold it in high regard despite mean tweets from President Donald Trump.

For the last two years, as the ranking minority member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Schiff has battled to get to the bottom of the Russia-Trump plot. He was stymied. The Republicans wanted to investigate Trump’s investigators.

Now Schiff is preparing to be the next chairman of the intelligence panel. One might expect he would be focused like a laser on Trump’s ties to Russia. So far, however, he is not.

Mind you, Schiff still would like someone to look into the Trump Organization’s financial ties to Russia. He would like to learn the blocked phone number that called Donald Trump Jr. after his infamous 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the campaign. He still intends to release the transcripts of the interviews his committee has conducted in the last two years.

For now, though, Schiff is being patient. He wants to wait and see what his Senate colleagues and special counsel Robert Mueller dig up before saying what his own committee will investigate. In October he told an audience at the Brookings Institution that his first priority would be to restore comity and integrity to the intelligence committee.

And Schiff, like his ascendant Democratic colleagues, is looking beyond just Russia. He has said, for example, that he wants to look into Trump’s conversations with the postmaster general about raising the rates for Amazon, whose chief executive owns the Washington Post. His interest in this issue, according to his staff, stems from his leadership of the “freedom of the press” caucus, not his pending chairmanship of the intelligence committee.

And while Schiff has warned the new acting attorney general not to interfere with Mueller, he is also planning to get his committee back to its original mission: oversight of the intelligence community.

That is welcome news. To start, the alliance of convenience between Democrats and the national security state was always an awkward fit. This is a party whose presidential nominee blamed the FBI director for costing her the 2016 election. This is a party that released its own report in 2014 detailing the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists. This is a party whose base protested former FBI Director James Comey’s criticism of Black Lives Matter.

There is another reason why Schiff’s pivot is wise. America’s spies are in desperate need of oversight. In a little-noticed story earlier this month, Yahoo News uncovered a scandal that dates back at least a decade. The CIA’s communication system to contact its agents in China, Lebanon and Iran was fatally compromised, resulting in the death of brave assets who risked their lives for U.S. national security. Some of the flaws in the system were first spotted by John Reidy, a contractor whose job was to manage those human sources in Iran.

Reidy tried to warn the intelligence community’s inspector general and Congress about the breach. But he was largely ignored, and the CIA painted him as a disgruntled contractor. One of Reidy’s attorneys, Kel McClanahan, told me that the House intelligence committee at the time “bought the CIA’s story hook, line and sinker.” Schiff now has an opportunity to take a second look.

There is a broader lesson here for Democrats. As a branding exercise, resistance politics is dramatic and satisfying. And when a member of the opposite party occupies the White House, there is always a tendency to portray him as a supervillain.

But this way also nurtures delusion. Trump’s nativism and mendacity are bad enough. Assuming he is a Russian stooge or the second coming of Mussolini just gives his opponents permission to violate the same kind of norms that Trump so gleefully smashes. That is the abdication of politics masquerading as empowerment.

With control of the House, Democrats now have an opportunity to engage in the tedious but essential work of actually checking Trump’s power. They have a chance to evolve from a resistance into an opposition. For the country’s sake as much as their party’s, Schiff and his colleagues should not squander that opportunity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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