STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Congressman Adam Schiff has a question. The California Democrat is on the House Intelligence Committee. It examined links between President Trump's campaign and Russia. In 2016, Schiff says Donald Trump Jr. met a Russian lawyer and spoke on the phone with someone using a blocked number.
ADAM SCHIFF: The obvious question was, was this call from Dad? And the response from the Republicans was, no, we don't want to know.
INSKEEP: Republican Devin Nunes controlled the committee. But that was then; this is now. Schiff now chairs the committee, and he does want to know.
SCHIFF: We do have the ability to find out. And we will find out.
INSKEEP: Democrats now have subpoena power - one of the more significant changes brought by last year's election. We met Chairman Schiff in his Capitol office, which is decorated by black and white photos of past presidents. In past generations, his committee operated quietly, overseeing U.S. intelligence agencies. Schiff sees a more public role, including a deeper look at Russia.
SCHIFF: So we're already reaching out to witnesses that we wanted to come in, but we couldn't get the then-majority to either request or subpoena. We're going to get documents that we need to get to do our investigative work.
INSKEEP: Why would you begin the Russia investigation again, granting you didn't like the way that Devin Nunes did it or that his colleagues did it? There's been a Senate investigation that was seen as credible and bipartisan. There's the Mueller investigation. What could you add?
SCHIFF: Well, first of all, we never shut down the Russia investigation. The Republicans walked away from it, but we continued to bring in witnesses. But we didn't have the power to subpoena them or compel their testimony, and that didn't allow us to do a thorough job.
And we see in the testimony of Bill Barr just how important it is that the congressional investigations go on. Barr testified that he is not committing to sharing the Mueller report with the Congress or the country.
INSKEEP: This is the attorney general nominee, right?
SCHIFF: Exactly. And we can expect he's going to give us a Cliffs Notes version that he will write himself. This means that the country may never learn about information that does not go into an indictment. And that just is completely unsatisfactory. The country deserves to know what the Russians did in our elections, what role the president played or his campaign associates played.
And to have a situation where the nominee for attorney general says, you can't indict a sitting president; you can only impeach one if it's warranted, but we're not going to give you the evidence to determine whether impeachment is in order means we're not going to have a rule of law. We're going to have immunity, and that just cannot persist.
INSKEEP: You think it is worth, then, going over the very same ground Mueller has gone over, perhaps, because you can do it in a way that you would develop public information?
SCHIFF: I think there are areas that Mueller may not be investigating that need to be investigated because he may or may not be given the charter by the deputy attorney general or acting attorney general.
INSKEEP: What's an example?
SCHIFF: Money laundering - were the Russians laundering money through the Trump businesses? Does this compromise the Russians' hold over the president of the United States? We don't know the answer to that question, but we also don't know whether Bob Mueller has been allowed to investigate that issue. The president has tried to draw a red line around it. In my view, the president has no business drawing red lines. But nonetheless, we don't know whether that has been investigated, but we do know it needs to be.
INSKEEP: Is that why you are hiring, among other staff members, a former prosecutor and an expert in money laundering?
SCHIFF: We are adding to the investigative capabilities of our committee in our staffing. And so we are interviewing candidates with an eye towards doing that.
INSKEEP: And what I said is correct - money laundering expert will be on that staff? Former prosecutor will be on that staff?
SCHIFF: You know, I - we are going to be hiring people with investigative experience.
INSKEEP: If you are going into all the president's finances, and perhaps an extensive look at his business career, at what point would that become a witch hunt?
SCHIFF: Well, we're certainly not going to go into all the president's finances. You know, whether the president was engaged in shady business transactions with people - that's not my job to find out. It is my job to find out whether a foreign power holds leverage over the president.
Even when Donald Trump was the presumptive Republican nominee for president and was denying any business dealings with Russia, he was, in fact, pursuing a multi-multimillion-dollar project in Moscow and seeking the Kremlin's help to make it happen. Now, the Russians knew this even as the President was denying it because the Russians were on the other end of that transaction, which means that at any point in time of the Russians' choosing, they could expose the president's falsehoods about this. And that is compromise.
Now, it's come to the public's attention recently that the president may have tried to acquire or destroy the records of his private conversations with Putin over the last couple years. Why is that? Why does he demand to meet alone with Putin? Why does he demand that there be no record of his discussions with Putin? This is extraordinarily worrying behavior by the president of the United States.
INSKEEP: Last year, when you did not have the power - you had to ask Republicans - you called for the interpreter from the president's private meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, to be subpoenaed to testify. Now that you do have the power, do you intend to subpoena that interpreter?
SCHIFF: We intend to do everything we can to find out what took place in these private meetings. And we are examining the legal issues around either bringing in the interpreter or getting the interpreter's notes or finding out through others in the administration what took place.
INSKEEP: What are the legal issues?
SCHIFF: Well, they may make a superficial claim of executive privilege. That privilege applies when the president is talking to his advisers, seeking their counsel. And the policy reason behind it is that he should be able to get the unfettered advice of his counselors to make decisions. But we're not interested in what he was talking to his counselors about. We're interested in what he was talking to Vladimir Putin about. And it doesn't seem to me that any privilege applies there. But that doesn't mean they won't claim one.
And so we are investigating the legal issues around it. At the end of the day, though, we need to find out whether the president, behind closed doors, is sacrificing U.S. interests because of some personal motivation. That, to me, is the overriding and compelling interest here.
INSKEEP: If the White House disagrees with you about executive privilege on a matter like the president's interpreter, are you prepared to go to court?
SCHIFF: Well, this is a decision that we will have to make in discussion with our leadership. And I'm already coordinating with Eliot Engel, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, because what we are going to have to do as an overarching matter is prioritize what fights we're going to have with this administration. We know they're going to stonewall us on whatever legitimate oversight we do, and it means we're going to have to put our most important fights first and make sure that we are prepared for them.
INSKEEP: Mr. Chairman, thanks for the time.
SCHIFF: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Adam Schiff is the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
By the way, a defender of the president is revising a key talking point. President Trump often says there was no collusion with Russia. Now his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has narrowed that claim. Giuliani told CNN, quote, "I never said there was no collusion between the campaign or between people in the campaign." He says the denial applies only to the president personally.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.