When Representative Adam B. Schiff was a Harvard Law School student in the 1980s, the campus was bitterly divided. Student protests erupted over apartheid in South Africa, the lack of diversity on the faculty, and the long line of polarizing speakers — including Jerry Falwell, Jesse Jackson, and Phyllis Schlafly — who trooped through campus. Old-guard faculty, meanwhile, were warring with a new crop of professors who wanted students to see the law as part of an oppressive status quo.
Schiff, however, seemed to steer clear of the drama, friends said. He advised incoming students, picked up campus speakers at Logan Airport, and played flag football on a B-League intramural team that notched an undefeated 8-0 season in 1984.
“There was nothing about his time on campus that led me to think that ‘this was someone destined for politics,’ ” Brian Boyle, a financial services attorney and former classmate, wrote in an e-mail. “No participation in campus protests or anything else that was overtly political. I was a somewhat partisan Republican then, and a huge fan of then-President Reagan — and I don’t remember him needling me at all about that.”
Now, Schiff has been thrust into the most contentious partisan debate in decades, as the Democratic congressman chosen to lead the impeachment inquiry into President Trump — a role he won in part because he is seen as a more moderate figure than some of the other committee chairs in the House.
Already, Trump has questioned whether Schiff should be arrested for treason. And just this week, Schiff subpoenaed documents from Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, who has accused Schiff of attempting to “frame” Trump and has said Schiff should be “investigated for lying, enabling perjury, and trampling on constitutional rights.”
Schiff was already a lightning rod for Republican criticism, as the Democratic leader of the House Intelligence Committee investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the possible involvement of Trump associates in that effort.
It is a position the 59-year-old former federal prosecutor from Los Angeles rose to from middle-class roots in Framingham, where he first gained an interest in politics. As a child growing up in Massachusetts in the 1960s, “you can’t help but be influenced by the Kennedys,” Schiff said in an interview Tuesday.
“It gave you an idealism about public service and a keen interest in what was going in the world,” he said.
Schiff’s father, a salesman for a men’s clothing company, moved the family to Arizona when Schiff was about 9, and then to California. After graduating from Stanford in 1982, Schiff agonized over whether to attend medical school or law school. He took both the MCAT and LSAT and applied to both programs before telling his “horrified” parents that he was going to become a lawyer, he said.
“To get a Jewish mother that close to ‘My son, the doctor,’ and then snatch it away is a very cruel thing to do,” he recently told WNYC.
At Harvard, Schiff struck classmates as sharp and driven but not politically active.
As a member of the nonpartisan Harvard Law School Forum, he drove speakers, including Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., to campus and played tight end on “the Druugs,” the flag football squad, friends said.
“You got the impression he was going places in life and, unlike a lot of people there who had ambition, he was still a very nice, quote-unquote normal, interesting, sociable guy,” said John David Dyche, a Kentucky attorney and former teammate and classmate. “I left law school thinking, ‘I’m going to be hearing things from Adam Schiff,’ and, by golly, I have.”
The “Druugs,” friends said, were named for the “droogs,” the band of misfits who commit crimes together in “A Clockwork Orange.” Schiff and others dressed up as characters from the iconic book and movie on Halloween, one friend said.
Schiff learned constitutional law from Laurence H. Tribe, a veteran Harvard law professor who also taught Barack Obama. Schiff said that when he and his friends would see Tribe in Harvard Square, “we would literally genuflect.”
Tribe eventually hired Schiff to be one of his student research assistants. “He was very similar to what he is like now – extremely brilliant, very well organized, very thoughtful, and cautious,” Tribe recalled this week.
After graduating from Harvard in 1985, Schiff worked as a federal prosecutor in California before being elected to the California state Senate in 1996 and to Congress in 2000.
He gravitated to the Intelligence Committee because it was seen as nonpartisan, he said. He gained experience with impeachment when he helped manage the removal of a federal judge in 2009. Until last week, however, he opposed an impeachment inquiry into Trump, arguing it would be divisive and end in an acquittal in the Republican-led Senate.
“He was even more hesitant than I had been about pulling out that heavy artillery,” said Tribe, who has been urging Schiff to back an impeachment inquiry for about a year. “The very fact that he was so cautious about getting there adds to the credibility of everything he says and does.”
Schiff reversed course after a whistle-blower alleged that Trump urged Ukraine to dig up dirt on the family of former vice president Joe Biden, one of Trump’s Democratic presidential rivals.
Schiff has characterized a July 25 phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine as a “classic Mafia-like shakedown of a foreign leader.” Trump, meanwhile, has tweeted that Schiff should be “questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason.”
Schiff said he has grown accustomed to such attacks.
“Right now, the president is furious that I’ve helped to expose his efforts to shake down the leader of another country, and he evidently feels he should engage in such misconduct without the public ever finding out about it,” he told the Globe. “I feel differently, and expect the attacks will continue.”
He said he is not sure when, or if, the impeachment inquiry will lead to a vote in the House, saying it depends in part on how much pushback he gets from the Trump administration.
“I bring a real sense of urgency to this, but it will have to be dictated by the facts and how quickly we are able to get them,” he said.
He said the House’s obligation now is “to find the facts, to expose the full extent of the president’s misconduct, and then collectively make a decision about whether articles of impeachment are warranted.”
“At the end of the day, my interest is to protect the rule of law, protect the institutions of our democracy,” he said. “I’ll do whatever is necessary to do that.”