By Bliss Bowen
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

With his engrossing, sometimes chilling book “Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA 28) examines tumultuous events of recent years in historical context while alerting readers to current threats.

There’s no time for complacency or despair, he warns, and some reasons for hope. Schiff discusses the book with actor Jason Alexander Saturday, Oct. 16, at Pasadena Presbyterian Church.

Schiff establishes his core themes in the book’s prologue, set in Senate chambers during Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, and the subsequent chapter, which opens on Jan. 6 with Capitol police shouting at Congress members to grab their gas masks.

Exiting the House floor with Schiff, Republican colleagues express concern about his safety as insurrectionists hammer at doors and shatter glass in the background.

“You can’t let them see you,” one House member warns Schiff. Another concurs, seemingly oblivious that what they’re offering is not solidarity: “I know these people. I can talk to them. I can talk my way through them. You’re in a whole different category.”

Indeed. We do not know whether these Congress members promulgated the Big Lie because Schiff does not say, but reading their comments as they hustle out of the room, the late Sen. John McCain springs to mind.

At a 2008 rally, the mercurial McCain spoke over a disapproving audience to defend opponent Barack Obama as “a decent family man and citizen who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” How much less dangerous would our political environment be if more elected representatives deflated conspiracy theories and humanized rather than demonized opponents?

The question is not academic. By the time of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Schiff writes, he “had been receiving death threats for years,” many triggered by raging Trump tweets. (The escalation of those threats, and their effect on his family, is a sobering thread throughout the book.) “Midnight in Washington” takes its title from Schiff’s closing argument as lead manager of Trump’s first impeachment trial, a stunning piece of oratory that spoke to the political moment while transcending it (https://bit.ly/3Dug0kU), but the darkness it invokes began falling before Trump’s election and lingers almost a year after he was voted out of the Oval Office.

While the book documents the Trump administration’s evisceration of democratic norms, Schiff is less concerned with what Trump did than with what enablers around him chose not to do — the representatives who did not check the executive’s usurpation of congressional power, the chiefs of staff and cabinet heads who did not interfere as policies were shredded and laws ignored, the senators who whispered encouragement to Schiff but pledged allegiance to Trump on camera.

That is the story he wants to tell: “how good people were persuaded to abandon their beliefs and ideology, their dedication to something larger than themselves and their ambition.” Referencing the “mayhem” of Jan. 6, he notes, “We can reinforce the doors and put up fences. But we cannot guard our democracy against those who walk the halls of Congress, have taken an oath to uphold our Constitution, but refuse to do so.” 

The lucidly written book is his argument for why people, particularly elected officials, should champion democratic principles. The former prosecutor makes his case persuasively while punching back at adversaries (Trump, former friend Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy, Bill Barr, Jim Jordan) and calling out his own mistakes.

Schiff doesn’t explode; he smolders with a long fuse. Returning to the Constitution and the Founders’ concerns about extreme “factionalism” and abuses of power, he connects Jan. 6 to a string of incremental violations of constitutional order — “signposts to our present unraveling” — some of which predate Trump’s election. The man “born bipartisan” (a photo shows his grandfather, a Republican elector, standing beside Dwight D. Eisenhower) reminds readers democracy depends on two functioning parties and condemns the GOP for abandoning its conscience to encourage a “trend toward authoritarianism.” 

Hope is offered via the moral character of colleagues such as the late Elijah Cummings (Schiff calls his death “deeply unnerving”) and individuals who — unlike their bosses — risked their careers, safety and reputations by bearing witness to House committees: Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, diplomats Marie Yovanovitch and Bill Taylor, Dr. Fiona Hill, and Capitol Police officers Harry Dunn and Aquilino Gonell. (Not to mention heroic Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman, who led insurrectionists away from senators on Jan. 6, and D.C. Metropolitan police officers Michael Fanone and Daniel Hodges.)

Schiff is profoundly affected by Vindman’s testimony: “‘Here, right matters.’ … He said it so earnestly, like a prayer.” Sketches of colleagues such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi go over the top with praise but also provide insight into the daily demands of governance.

Consultations between congressional members and staff as they navigate thorns of legal precedent and constitutionality illuminate why experience matters in legislators — just as behind-the-scenes depictions of Schiff, Pelosi, Jerry Nadler, Jamie Raskin and others juggling multiple hearings with press conferences and family crises make political dramas human.

That drama follows Schiff home when he meets with constituents: Days after the massacre of 23 people at an El Paso Walmart in August 2019, he participated in a multidenominational forum at All Saints Church in Pasadena (attended by this writer), where he spoke about “the scourge of white nationalism” and how Trump’s dehumanizing descriptions of immigrants (“invaders,” “an infestation”) were echoed by the El Paso shooter. He recalls the gathering in the book, and the “very large man” who briefly disrupted Schiff’s remarks before being escorted out by security.

Not long after, as right-wing media hyperventilated about Vindman’s testimony and a $50,000 bounty was offered for the identity of the whistleblower who outed Trump’s “perfect” phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky, Schiff’s resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide passed in the House (405-11) after 19 years of effort.

At Glendale Central Library, a celebration with a multigenerational crowd was hijacked by jacketed Trump supporters carrying “Don’t impeach” signs. When a fight erupted, Schiff writes, “I saw an 80-year-old friend, a descendant of (genocide) survivors, bring his arm back to punch one of the agitators, who looked like an extra from a ZZ Top cover band.”

Numerous scenes like these demonstrate the grittier aspects of politics. Others convey the sense of occasion surrounding the Capitol, as when Pelosi, Schiff, Nadler and other House leaders marched their resolution of transmittal to the Senate: “Sun shone through the windows high above, covering us in light and shadow, and we passed by a series of risers where photographers took photos from on high, their shutters filling the silence like so many angry insects.”

“Midnight in Washington” is devoted mostly to Trump’s impeachment trials and hearings Schiff conducted as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. It’s a worthy historical record, but the value of such a book lies in it being more than mere chronicle.

The too brief Epilogue itemizes mounting threats in the wake of Jan. 6: the replacement of independent election officials by partisan state legislatures, the spread of white nationalism, the GOP’s ongoing support of the Big Lie. Schiff cites his just-introduced Protecting Our Democracy Act (https://bit.ly/3BuSyUj) as a way of restoring democratic norms and making them law, and stresses the urgency of change: “In the House, that means an end to the gerrymander … in the Senate, it means an end to the filibuster.”

If polling sites are shut down, voters must find another; if we are forced to wait long hours in the sun, “we must bring our own shade.” Above all, he writes, “We must love our democracy more than they wish to destroy it.” If Schiff is prosecutor, we are jurors; the verdict on how to move forward is in our hands.


Rep. Adam Schiff discusses “Midnight in Washington”

with actor Jason Alexander

WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16

WHERE: Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena

COST: $36 and it includes one copy of the book

INFO: vromansbookstore.com or 626-449-5320; vaccinations and masks required for all attendees