Politics

Rep. Adam Schiff talks deepfakes on Kara Swisher podcast Recode Decode

In May, Facebook refused to remove a deceptively edited viral video that made Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi look drunk — a decision that does not bode well for how Silicon Valley will handle disinformation and election interference in 2020, Rep. Adam Schiff says.

And for that matter, he said on the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, Congress and the voting public aren’t prepared to deal with those things either.

“The tech companies aren’t ready,” Schiff said. “They don’t have, I think, their policies fully thought out yet. The government isn’t ready. We don’t have the technologies yet to be able to detect more sophisticated fakes.”

“And the public, by and large, when you bring up ‘deepfake,’ they don’t know what you’re referring to,” he added. “And so we don’t have much time. It’s eight months until the primaries begin to try to prepare the public, prepare ourselves, determine what other steps need to be taken to protect ourselves from this kind of disinformation.”

That’s why Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, has warned tech companies to be on notice for deepfakes and other dirty tricks over the next 16 months. He said now is the time, before primary voting begins, to figure out those policies and how the government will interface with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube if and when the attacks begin.

“This is a difficult space for the government to operate in because we’re not going to censor people, but we can use the bully pulpit to try to encourage good behavior,” Schiff said. “We can also share information. When we learn through the intelligence community that Russia is pushing out a deepfake, we can alert the companies to it. There needed to be better cooperation, coordination in the last election. We need to make sure that those problems are ironed out before the next one.”

You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Rep. Schiff.


Kara Swisher: Thank you for coming, Congressman Schiff.

Adam Schiff: My pleasure.

We’re in your office here during a rainstorm, here on the House side in the Rayburn House office building. Let’s talk a little bit about a letter you have just sent to Facebook, Twitter, and Google. So it’s to Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey.

Yes. We’ve written to them to essentially try to put them on notice about the problem of deepfakes. So it asks what they’re going to do about it, what they’ve done already, what their policies are.

Back in 2016, my paramount concern as we were watching in real time what the Russians were doing was that they were going to start dumping forgeries among the real documents. Now, by and large, they dumped authentic, but stolen, Clinton emails. But of course there would’ve been nothing that would prevent them from dumping forgeries, and they could have inserted additional paragraphs suggesting illegality, things that would’ve been impossible to disprove in the weeks leading up to the election.

Now with deepfake technology, it will be very easy in a way that it will be difficult to ultimately attribute to the Russians or anybody else; insert into the social media ecosystem completely fraudulent video of Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump or anybody else. In the weeks leading up to an election that would be almost impossible to disprove. That worries me more, frankly, than other things that also concern me.

Because it goes so quickly. Let me quote from this letter: “The consequences for our democracy could be devastating. A timely, convincing, deepfake video of a candidate going viral on a platform like Facebook/Twitter/Google/YouTube could hijack, erase, or even alter the course of history.”

You refer to the video of Nancy Pelosi, which I’ve written about, lots of people have. YouTube took it down. Facebook did not. Everybody made a different decision. But what happened is it went viral on all these platforms and it was hard to take it down. Once it did, it was a really … it was not a deepfake. It was just an altered video. So talk about the impact of that video here. Is that what prompted this?

It’s not what prompted it. In fact, I think we had done a hearing in the intel committee even before that Pelosi “cheapfake” was released. But it was a great trial run to see, are the tech companies ready to handle this? What’s the response going to be? How do we deal with an environment in which lies travel far faster than truths?

In the last election, the Trump campaign made an effort to portray Hillary Clinton as ill, as in poor health. They could have easily pushed out a video like that of Nancy Pelosi where it looks like Hillary Clinton was slurring her speech and 20 million people might see that, 5 million people might learn that it was a doctored video. But even those who see it and learn that it’s doctored still don’t shake completely the impression that it leaves. So it was a good trial run to see are we ready.

And the answer was no, we’re not ready. The tech companies aren’t ready. They don’t have, I think, their policies fully thought out yet. The government isn’t ready. We don’t have the technologies yet to be able to detect more sophisticated fakes. And the public is not ready. The public, by and large, when you bring up “deepfake,” they don’t know what you’re referring to. And so we don’t have much time. It’s eight months until the primaries begin to try to prepare the public, prepare ourselves, determine what other steps need to be taken to protect ourselves from this kind of disinformation.

Let’s talk about those steps. We’ll talk about the broader issues around tech in a second, but you asked for some things. You want to know how many views did the manually altered video of speaker Pelosi, this is this test run you’re talking about. How long did it take to initiate a complete review? How many views the videos received before being marked false. You were talking about how Mark had talked about that deepfakes were a completely different category than overall fakes. So you’re asking them to look at things. When you get these answers, that’s just the beginning. You’ve got to do something about it.

Well, it is the beginning. But forcing the companies to go through the discipline of analyzing the question, developing policies, and being able to publicly justify their policies is part of what we can do. This is a difficult space for the government to operate in because we’re not going to censor people, but we can use the bully pulpit to try to encourage good behavior. We can also share information. When we learn through the intelligence community that Russia is pushing out a deepfake, we can alert the companies to it. There needed to be better cooperation, coordination in the last election. We need to make sure that those problems are ironed out before the next one.

But it’s not ineffective merely to ask the questions. I wrote a similar series of letters to the tech companies asking them to deprioritize this anti-vaccination misinformation and they did so with great speed. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten a result that quickly from a simple letter. So it can be powerful, but you’re right, it’s not the end by any means. We are trying in the Intelligence Authorization Bill to create a reward program through DARPA to those who develop technologies to detect doctored content. But how we use that technology, what kind of obligation we impose on the tech companies, I do think that the congressional scrutiny of how these tech companies are operating, whether they’re using best practices, whether they’re being good corporate citizens, whether they still deserve that immunity provision …

Mm-hmm, we’ll get to that.

I think all of that is salutary because I think they understand, if they can’t demonstrate good corporate citizenship, that they may prompt a lot of response from Congress they don’t want to see.

One of the things, I think it’s sort of pattern matching but nobody’s done anything ever to them. They’ve never been legislated against, they’ve never had any guidelines in place. They’ve never had any rules.

I think up until 2016, most Americans and most members of Congress viewed them as a benign force for good. It certainly had long been past the point where they were nascent companies struggling to get a foothold than where the argument that we need no regulation to make sure we don’t stifle innovation. We had already been long past that point, but nonetheless they seemed like a force for good.

Celebrities, you know, look up to … These are the heroes of our day, that kind of thing.

Some of that, yes. But also the fact that people in Egypt and elsewhere could communicate out of the watchful eye of their government. They could organize. We were seeing so many benefits. Now ultimately the Arab Spring didn’t pan out to be the great benefit we thought but …

Sure. What’s interesting is Hong Kong, they didn’t use any. They used paper and they used masks and they didn’t use social media as much.

And this is the thing. I would say that 2016 was a turning point in the public view of technology as a benign force for good. Now we are gravely concerned about other uses of technology, not just the social media platforms.

But China for example, one of the hearings we had in the intel committee was how they are exporting their digital form of totalitarianism, the euphemistic, the Orwellian “safe cities” model where they have ubiquitous CCTV cameras tied into big data and facial recognition, social media scores. So we are definitely …

It’s a surveillance economy is what it is. They spend more on internal surveillance than almost anything to keep people in line, I think. They have to do that. Especially with facial recognition. I’m going to get to that in a second but …

But I would imagine that is why you see what you do in Hong Kong, where people are going old school. They’re realizing that yes, technology is great in terms of communicating, but it’s also a great tool for the government to keep track of what you’re doing.

Right. So let’s go back a little bit because you’ve been around … How many terms have you been?

This is my 10th term.

And from California.

Yes.

From California. So you’re very aware of tech companies, you’re very aware of the importance of innovation in tech in California. Let’s go back a little bit in terms of the relation between government and tech, because it was good, and then it wasn’t. Where do you imagine things went off the rails?

I think that these companies grew so far, so fast that their growth really outpaced their ability to analyze the impact on the public good. And I think part of it was there was such a cultural bedrock view that what they were doing was unmitigated good, kind of a libertarian ideal, that it took time even for them to realize how their technologies were used for ill. And then of course, that came into great competition with the economic motives. And so, I think for Congress and for much of the public, that turning point came in 2016.

What about Edward Snowden, before that? Because I think a lot of the non-communication started there. There was a real break. And then the encryption fight during the Obama administration.

That, I think, certainly had the effect of creating antagonisms between the government and the tech sector. I don’t think it altered the public attitudes, though. In terms of the public attitudes, they looked at Snowden, they looked at the encryption debate, and they saw, really, these things as flip sides of the same coin, that government was being intrusive in terms of the surveillance power, the technology companies were providing the answer.

That’s not how I think the public views the issue writ large anymore. They may still feel that way about encryption, but they also now realize that it’s not good versus evil, tech versus government. It’s now, technology is a force for good and ill, and I think there’s a growing public recognition that the kind of laissez-faire attitude government has had towards the tech community has passed its point of utility.

But do you think the Snowden revelations, when they should’ve been cooperating on things like Russia, impacted … You’re in the midst of the Russian investigations. Do you think it impacted the ability of those companies to work together at a critical time? Because that was right around when a lot of this … It was 2012 was when the Russians really started moving around. And the theory I have is like, look, they lost the Cold War but this is the new version of that.

Well, I do think that the technology companies felt post-Snowden and maybe even pre-Snowden that getting too close to the US government, particularly getting too close to the US intelligence community, was antithetical to their philosophy, but it was also bad for business. In a global environment in which people around the world were very protective of their privacy as they are here at home, being seen as too much in bed with the US government was not a good thing.

So I think that was the environment we went into the 2016 election in, and that probably spilled over in terms of the degree to which we could get cooperation from the tech sector. It was very difficult. We were pulling teeth, for example, to get them to provide us with all of the social media ads. It was then pulling more teeth to get them to excise the personally identifiable information so that we could release them publicly. They did not seem to want us to release them publicly.

Ultimately we did, and I think it was very beneficial because researchers could use that. And indeed, the companies themselves could hold them up as examples of what people need to be looking out for, but we had to overcome a lot of opposition to do that. I don’t think that opposition is completely gone by any means, but I do think …

What do you mean by that? That they’re not …

Well, I mean they’re not … First of all, it’s not a monolithic agency — sector. Some companies are more willing …

Oh no. I think the two that … If you want to put it down to playground politics, most tech companies like Facebook and Google: “Those jackasses, they’re ruining it for the rest of us.” I think Facebook and Google are the ones they feel were more violative of these kind of things.

I don’t know if that’s correct about the public perception. I can say in terms of our own interactions, it was often more difficult to get information from Twitter than some of the other companies in terms of the Russian manipulation of their platforms. We often got better data from the Hamilton Project about what they were saying about Russian use of bots on these platforms than we could get from the platforms themselves.

Why was that?

Well, that’s a good question.

In Twitter’s case, it could be a goat rodeo, the way they manage things. In other cases they … Did they deny it? Do you feel like it was a denial of wanting to give it to you? Or not knowing?

Well, we would get answers back that were written by the lawyers — and as a lawyer, I could appreciate good lawyerly writing — answers that didn’t necessarily answer the question or answer the question in such a way as to avoid telling us something they didn’t want to share. So we would have to go back to them multiple times to make sure that we had this ability on the issue.

I do think the companies, either because they recognize the problems that have been created or because they fear losing their immunity or being broken up, I think they are less reticent to share with us now when we do our oversight. But it’s still not easy.

How has it changed since you’re in the majority now? You were on a lot of cable television. This committee was … Where is this committee now? Because it seemed like we went off the rails pretty quickly. Not in the Senate, not as much, but how does it change with you being in charge?

The good news/bad news of our committee is that even through the worst of our differences on Russia, we continue to do all the rest of the business of the committee in a nonpartisan-bipartisan way. On the floor next week is the Intelligence Authorization Act. That passed out of our committee on a unanimous bipartisan voice vote. We passed that bill last year. We passed it the year before, whether we were in the minority, majority, we’ve been able to do it. And that’s the bread and butter of our work. It reflects funding levels for the agencies, privacy protections, changes in how much we’re going to devote to human intelligence versus signals intelligence. A whole host of issues. And we come to agreement on it. And frankly we get those bills passed even when the Senate intel committee, which has done better on Russia, can’t get that work done. So that’s been the good news.

The bad news is that our differences on Russia have been profound, and that continues. That’s made life very difficult. We adhere to the mission we took on in the beginning and that was to determine what the Russians did, how they did it, the connections they had with the Trump campaign, and we were fighting them to get those answers when we were in the minority. We are now fighting the Justice Department to get those answers in the majority, and fighting the administration. So we continue that effort and it’s certainly much easier with the gavel but it is difficult now because we have a president obstructing everything.

So you have to sue it out of them. Get them to …

We do. And now we are getting information, we are bringing in witnesses, we are getting documents, but it is a hard slog and the administration is raising nonexistent privileges and using every delay tactic they can. Nonetheless, we are gaining information and gaining ground in our understanding of what took place, and we’re going to continue to press until we get the information out to the public.

So overall now, where do you feel you are with what took place? Because what you need to do is look about what they’re doing today, which the FBI does, I’m assuming CIA, certain parts of the world do.

Yes. I think we have a good appreciation of what the Russians did. What we are looking at on our committee is, what are the counterintelligence risks that have been created as a result of what they did in 2016 and 2018? What are the risks going forward?

What Mueller and his team did was basically a criminal investigation into who should go to jail. The Mueller report itself is a prosecutor’s report on why he charged certain people and didn’t charge others. It doesn’t address at all the other half of the investigation, which is the counterintelligence investigation. Who was operating as agents of a foreign power? What were those agents doing in this country? What risks have been posed to American national security by virtue of contacts between the Trump people and the Russians?

Those risks continue even as to things that were not charged. So we are trying to get an understanding of those and what we need to do to protect ourselves, as well as analyze what Mueller was not allowed to look at, including the issue of money laundering. So there are still a great many things we don’t have answers to, but at the end of the day, the most important thing for us is to make sure that the country is protected, that there’s no vulnerability compromise that is impacting US policy that goes undisclosed.

What are you most worried about right now? It’s interesting because sometimes you and Senator Warner often say, “Well if you knew what really went on.” What is the big worry from your perspective right now?

What I’ve been saying really for most of the last year and a half is really quite the contrary, which is everything in the public view is already damning enough. Just look at what’s in the public view.

Right.

What’s in the public view is a massive Russian intervention in our election, a Trump campaign that not only was aware of it, but was encouraging it, made full use of it, didn’t report it, and then tried to cover it up. And to this date, a president who, through his word and deed, seems to encourage the Russians to do it again. Every time he speaks with Putin and he mocks the idea that the Russians intervened in our affairs — as he did in his last meeting or as in his phone conversation just prior to that, once again called this all a hoax, or that debacle in Helsinki where he took the side of Putin over his own intelligence agencies — he is communicating to the Russians he is too weak to call them out.

If they intervene again, then what’s more if they intervene on his side, he may very well even be grateful. That’s the message he’s delivering. The Russians, just like us, they do psychological profiles of their adversaries. They know exactly what buttons to push to get what they want out of the president of the United States.

Robert Muller is coming next week to talk. There was no collusion proven. It was possible cooperation. Was that a blow to the efforts you were making? Because what happens here is it gets confused. I think getting it confused is the way to really damage it. If you say the Russians did this, most intelligence agencies agree, all the intelligence agencies agree that this is what happened, and one person in the room says, “Well, maybe.”

Well, just the way you phrased the question shows the success that Trump and Barr have had in misrepresenting Mueller’s work. Because of course, there’s no part of the report that says there was no collusion. Quite the contrary. What Muller says is “We don’t analyze the question of collusion. That can be criminal and it can be noncriminal. What we look at is was there evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of criminal conspiracy. While we do find evidence, we don’t find that we can prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Now, that’s very different than a conclusion that there is “no collusion.” In fact, there is lots of evidence of collusion. There’s a Russian offer of help communicated to the top levels of the Trump campaign. There is the president’s own son saying he would love to have that help. There’s the president’s son, the campaign chairman, and son-in-law taking a secret meeting to receive that help. There are lies that the president and his son engage in to cover up that meeting. There are the Russians telling the campaign through an intermediary named Masoud that they can help the campaign through the anonymous release of stolen emails of Hillary Clinton, which is what exactly they would go on to do. There’s the president making multiple requests to find out what the Russians have given WikiLeaks that can be released.

[Seth] Rich just this week, the [Seth] Rich news.

All of these things, the provision of polling data to someone linked to Russian intelligence by the campaign chairman involving multiple states, all of that is evidence of collusion. What we hope to do in the hearing is bring that out because what Bill Barr did as essentially the agent of the president was misrepresent what was in the Mueller report and delay the release of the Mueller report as long as he could so that he would have a month and the president would have a month using his bully pulpit to mislead the country into thinking the report says no collusion, no obstruction.

What do you do now? Because all intelligence agencies agree this happened, but there’s confusion on it. Confusion has been created. Is that over? Does this testimony matter at all?

It matters a great deal. Bill Barr would like nothing better than his misleading word to be the last word. It’s why he is affirmatively now trying to discourage Mueller, why the Justice Department is trying to interfere with the hearing next week. It’s because Mueller will contradict in word, if not explicitly taking on Barr, what Barr misrepresented, what the president is misrepresenting. The American people need to hear that from Mueller. It’s one thing when they hear it from me. It’s another when they hear it from the president. It’s another when they hear it from the attorney general. This is the guy who did the investigation.

What Bob Mueller is going to say next week is he’s going to say “the Russians intervened in a systemic way. That was no hoax. They did so to help one of the candidates, and it wasn’t Hillary Clinton. The Trump campaign was not only aware of it, they were eager to get that help. They not only were eager to get that help, they made use of that help. They not only made use of that help, they then lied to cover it up. Those coverups may be a crime. I can’t say, but I can’t exonerate them either.” That is a powerful rebuttal to the falsehoods being put out by the White House.

One of the things that’s the idea around is that he’s reticent, that he doesn’t want to come. He did that press conference, which I found unusual, the idea that I’ve said all I’ve said. How do you get him to say more?

Well, the press conference I think was an effort to say, “I really don’t want to testify, but I know that I can’t completely disappear. So, how about 10 minutes?” That, of course, didn’t satisfy anyone.

Why doesn’t he want to say just what you were saying?

I think it’s a combination of things. I think that he’s been kicked around for two years.

It looks like he can take it.

He realizes no matter what he says during the hearing, he’s going to be kicked around more. No one looks forward to that. I think he also views his role as a prosecutor, and prosecutors don’t normally talk outside of their indictments. But as he acknowledged in his own report, he is not operating in a traditional prosecutorial role. While I understand why he is reluctant, that came with the job. If you’re not willing to do what is required of the job, then don’t take the job.

What if he is reticent in the media because “The report is going to come out. Now we’ll see what really happened” kind of didn’t because they were able to talk about it in the way they wanted to. He gave a press conference where he didn’t really… People are waiting for this to nail this administration, and it never does.

Well, it’s certainly true that what was said of Reagan is far more true of Donald Trump. When they called Reagan the Teflon president, he was a piker compared to Donald Trump. The things that are provable about Donald Trump on a daily basis that would have resulted in Ronald Reagan’s removal, or anyone else for that matter… He brings a new level of Teflon we’ve never seen.

Nonetheless, I think it will be powerful to hear from Mueller. I think it’s important the country hear from Mueller. Whether it changes attitudes appreciably, I don’t know. I come into this with very circumspect expectations about what will happen. There are a lot of hardened attitudes about the president, about Russia, but I do think that we have an obligation to get the facts out to the public. The public will make the judgment about what weight to give them and how to use them in their decision making.

It isn’t sufficient to do an investigation like this, like Watergate, to hand off the report and then say, “We don’t really want anyone to pay attention to this in Congress or the public.” If the Republicans had been in this same posture after Watergate, there would’ve been no Watergate hearings. They would’ve gotten the report from Jaworski and they would’ve said, “Okay, anything else is a do-over.” It wasn’t true then, it’s not true now. So, we’ll discharge our responsibility, and we’ll leave it to the public to decide what the consequence should be.

But no definitive blow. It’s a slow-moving thing, or what is the …?

I don’t know what the impact will be of his testimony, whether it will be catalytic or whether it will change attitudes on impeachment or whether it will really not move the needle very much. I think it’s impossible to say. I do think that we need to be realistic. I don’t imagine there are going to be any dramatic new facts that come out of his testimony.

Right, all of a sudden. “What I really meant to say is …”

If there are dramatic new facts …

“He’s a Russian agent.”

Yes. I don’t think we can expect that. But nonetheless, because most people have not had the opportunity in their busy lives to read this report …

Well, many people haven’t read it.

… it’s the first time they’re really going to hear about it from an impartial source.

When you talk about the Teflon president, when you’re dealing with this kind of thing, he’s a very heavy user of social media in the same way, using it to do a lot of falsehoods actually using these platforms. How do you look at that? What do you think? Do you sometimes go, “Oh, wow, he’s good at that,” or you’re like, “I’m appalled by the use of the platforms like this,” or both?

I guess both. Yesterday, he tweeted out something patently false about Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal.

That’s Wednesday at 2:00, but go ahead.

I have to say, although I keep saying I’ve lost my capacity to be surprised, I am still surprised.

Really?

Yes, I’m still surprised.

What do you do? Do you sit there and just go, “What the heck?” You get your fingers out?

I read the president saying that Iran was cheating on the nuclear deal when there’s no evidence to support that and a lot of intelligence that they were living up to the deal before we got out of it. It still takes my breath away that a president of the United States will just baldly lie about something of such significance. That ought to take our breath away.

He has a vehicle to do it in a different way.

He has a vehicle. Yes, he does.

How do you look at his use of Twitter?

Well, for someone who loves to criticize these companies, no one has drawn more benefit from Twitter than Donald Trump.

I say that, he should send them flowers every day. It should be a new bouquet.

Without a doubt, without a doubt, because traditionally if he were lying on reputable newspapers or broadcasts …

They wouldn’t print it.

… to the degree they would discuss a statement of a president’s like that, they would examine it and they would expose it. He knows he can communicate directly without the filter of good journalism. So, it is what it is.

Has that changed politics forever, or is it just that he’s an aberration who happens to be very good at Twitter?

Both. I don’t think that when he’s gone, someone is going to be able to carry on the cult of his personality. There are certain parts of this that are unique to him, the kind of reality TV, I can’t turn my eyes away from this disaster quality.

Yeah, Mike Pence is less than compelling.

That is true, that is true. There will be someone running in the Trump lane for some time that will try to do what he does, probably without the same native ability, but in terms of using social media and run around any journalistic filter …

You use it a lot.

Yes.

What are you trying to do there? You’re rather sassy on social media.

Well, I’ve always believed you need to communicate in every media that your opposition is.

What are you going for? Sometimes you do indignant. Sometimes you do funny. Do you do these yourself? You do these yourself.

Yes. Now, I have my staff review them, and my staff will propose tweets to me. In the beginning, I have to say, I was kind of a late user compared to other members. I bridled at the idea of having to put a complex thought in a few characters. But then I grew to think it was kind of a fun challenge in a way to say something unique or witty or ironic or whatnot.

Yes, our Twitter feed is a little eccentric. I caught my staff censors, I think, late in the evening when their guard was down with a tweet that was just straight out of King Lear, and it did very well. I think the people that follow our Twitter feed follow it because it’s a little unusual. We use it for a variety of purposes. Sometimes we use it to rebut the president. Sometimes we use it to alert people of new things that have happened either in the Russia investigation or other things. Sometimes we use it to call attention to things that are positive, and it’s a nice break from the monotony of what Trump is doing wrong today.

May I ask the question then, is this any way to run a government? Because this week he did a tweet that was an order that the Justice Department lawyers didn’t understand. If you saw the lawyer, I think I wrote about it this week, the lawyer was like, “He tweeted it. I don’t know what it means yet. I’m going to need to find out.” It’s government by tweet. It’s not just campaigning or, “I’m the best president ever and people love me.” That’s fine, but this is government by tweet.

Oh, it’s just awful.

Where do we go?

The interagency is what’s between his hand and the screen on his phone. There is no interagency. He will announce sanctions. He will do away with sanctions. He will accuse countries of violating treaties. He will undercut his own staff. He will make an overture to a North Korean dictator for an unplanned meeting. All of that is just on the impulse.

From an intelligence point of view, how do we get back from that?

We’re not going to as long as he’s president. When he leaves office, the question is, how do we get back to some normal office again? We are already writing the post-Watergate reforms of this generation, reforms of the pardon process, reforms of the ability of the president to intervene in specific cases in the Justice Department.

Executive action.

We’re going to have to have a much speedier mechanism for the enforcement of congressional subpoenas and process.

Yeah, you might work on that.

We’re already writing the reforms. Frankly, they’ll be bipartisan when he’s gone. The Republicans won’t support them now because they run scared to death of being on the receiving end of a presidential tweet. There’s been, I think, the most profound display of collective cowardice that I’ve ever seen in terms of a legislative body. But we’ll pass these reforms when he’s gone because they’ll recognize, they do already, the need for it. There won’t be the same political peril of being perceived as slighting the president.

Why don’t you all do something about that? Where are we on impeachment? Just yesterday there was this odd fight between Nancy Pelosi and the “squad” over tweeting, over disagreeing with each other. It’s a new day in politics, or not … It’s a different kind of mentality in politics. Do you feel that way, or is there any way to go back? There isn’t as far as I can tell.

I do think that one huge impact of Donald Trump has been to change the tone of politics. It is no exaggeration to say that the president sets the tone for a lot of things. I remember, early in the administration, feeling that his character flaw was infecting the whole of government. Then I remember after Dr. Ford testified and Trump went to that rally and was mocking her. I was watching the people standing behind him on the stage, and they were laughing at Dr. Ford. I thought to myself, “Okay, now it’s gone well beyond infecting the character of the government and infected the whole country.”

Oh, 100 percent, yeah.

I think we see that in a debasing of the political process and the dialogue. If you answered the phones in our office for a while, particularly when I go on Fox, and compared it to what it was like answering the phones in a congressional office 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago, it has been a complete debasing of the political dialogue.

You need to get rid of phones. That’s my feeling. Just don’t have them call because you know who’s on the phones.

People are polite on the phones compared to how they are on social media.

Well, true, but many of them are bots. A very well-known reporter was arguing with someone, and I texted them and said, “You’re arguing with a bot. Stop. You don’t understand. I just traced it for you,” which was funny, but she had gotten in a state over it, which was really interesting.

What about within your own party? Here are a bunch of really young, fresh Congresspeople who are using the mediums in a way that’s not unsimilar, factual but not unsimilar in terms of creating opinions and disagreements out in public. What does that do for …

Well, I wouldn’t compare anybody, I guess, to Donald Trump. I think he’s …

No, but it’s using the platform in this way that’s very different. And so speaker Pelosi said, “Oh, it’s whatever … The online thing isn’t what really is politics.” Is it or not?

Well, I think social media has really transformed the political process. We’ve seen a lot of systemic changes over the last decade, changes in how campaigns are financed, that have empowered private interest outside of the capital at the expense of the political parties, at the expense of the leadership. Social media is also, I think, really changing the nature of the institution, the nature of the political debate, and the nature of how campaigns are run.

Sure.

I mean, if you look at what the president is able to do on social media, I think we are really witnessing two revolutions taking place at the same time that are hugely disruptive. There’s a revolution in the economy through globalization and AI that is producing massive migration flows, that is producing …

Job disruption, eventually.

… enormous disruption in the marketplace, in people’s jobs, and all the economic anxiety that goes with that.

At the same time, there’s a revolution how we communicate through social media, which is equivalent to the invention of the printing press, except there we had hundreds of years to get used to it and here we have weeks sometimes or a year or years. Either one of those things would be hugely disruptive. Both put together I think are resulting in a conflagration.

We are, I think, just figuring it out now. What does this mean and how is it going to change the nature of Congress, the nature of our economy, our lives, our retirement system?

Where do you come down on the controversy this week? Should they be able to tweet what they want, or …?

Absolutely. They have a First Amendment right to say or tweet whatever they want. Whether it makes sense to be attacking each other when the real opposition, at least to what we’re trying to accomplish in terms of these families who are suffering, is the president and Mitch McConnell. I don’t think it helps advance the cause for us to be going after each other. There is a world, a universe of difference between what we think ought to be done for these children and what Mitch McConnell does or Donald Trump does. I mean, as we speak, they are potentially engaging in raids around the country. Already, immigrant communities are …

Terrified.

… in grave fear about what’s going to happen to their friends, their neighbors, their children, their parents.

I remember the day after the election, going to the Boys & Girls Club in Hollywood, and people think of Hollywood as being very wealthy, but there are parts of Hollywood that are very poor, and the executive director told me that the kids at the club the night before were in tears because they felt their parents were going to be deported. So, this is what we’re up against.

And I think when the house is burning down around us as it is, we can’t afford to fight with each other. We need to keep our focus on protecting these kids, these families, protecting people’s access to health care, making sure that this guy is a one-term disaster only, making sure that Mitch McConnell is replaced and we have a Senate that will protect people from gun violence and is working to preserve their access to health care rather than do away with it.

How do you put your chances at?

Well, I think that, prudently, in terms of the presidential race, we have to expect it’s going to be hard. I think it’s a 50/50 race. We underestimated him in the primary and the general. We’re not going to underestimate him again. It will all come down to whether we can turn our people out. The good news for the Democrats and progressives is that we significantly outnumber those that think Donald Trump is doing a good job. If we turn out our people, we win. So it is within our own power to control our destiny, and that’s empowering. We can do this. We just need to make sure that we turn our people out and that we’re not a house divided.

I would much rather be in a position where we’re in control of our own destiny than we were at someone else’s whim, and we have to count on them to fail. This is— incumbent president, always tough thing to beat, but if there was ever an incumbent president who could be beaten, it’s this one, and I’m optimistic we will beat him. I’d like to make sure that we take the Senate at the same time.

Two things I want to talk about before we’re finished. One is getting back to innovation, the idea of where innovation is going, but before that, I want to ask you about where you think the threats are now from a digital point of view in the cyber wars. Is it from China, from Russia, from … Where are you worried the most?

Many people, we talk about artificial intelligence, facial recognition, robotics, automation, and things like that. China’s really moving far ahead in many of these things. You’re from a state that has been at the leader of tech around the whole globe. What is your biggest worry among those, and what do you think we have to do as a country to keep that innovation, or keep that particular engine going?

Well, I would distinguish between worries over how foreign powers might intervene in 2020 …

Deepfakes.

… and then the broader challenge that we face from other countries. In terms of 2020 …

Is it deepfakes?

Well, in terms of a foreign adversary, it’s Russia. In terms of what tactics they may use, I would put deepfakes or something similar at the top of the list. I still have profound concerns about the security of our …

Voting machines.

… election’s infrastructure, and, frankly …

Ron Wyden, too.

They don’t have to change their vote. They just have to create enough doubt where we can’t rely on the outcome. If we have a situation like that, can you imagine a Bush v. Gore electronic dangling chad situation, how that would work in a Trump era? I shudder to think about. Those are …

If he lost, will he go away quietly? No.

Well, particularly if they can raise a question about the legitimacy of the vote tally. There is an effort to conflate by the president and sometimes by people around him, the threat to 2020 posed by Russia and China. Chinese intervention is of a very different character. Yes, China lobbies the United States, and, yes, China writes op-eds, and, yes, China uses its trade policy where they know it will hurt as a way of exerting pressure on the president. That’s pretty much out in the open. Russia does this very different, so I don’t think there’s any comparing those two.

Over the long term, though, China is the much more worthy rival, much more powerful rival with a much more worrisome and powerful future across every domain, whether it’s R&D and technology, whether it’s in space, whether it’s in the military front, whether it’s in their Belt and Road Initiative, the development assistance in every sphere, China is advancing while the Trump administration is self-immolating.

And most worrying to me is that they’re exporting this digital autocracy, and so they’re not only using technology to keep their own population more firmly constrained, but they’re helping other autocratic regimes around the country, around the world, doing the same thing, and this points up frankly the broadest concern I have, which is the rise of authoritarianism, at a time when our president is making common cause with the autocrats. We always thought, I think, that the idea that more people every year, year after year, would be living in greater freedom, with more representative government, was somehow an exorable … It’s not. We’re at an inflection point, and this, I think, is one of the real ideological challenges of our time.

I always do say, “The autocrats love the internet.” Why wouldn’t they? It’s a way to track faces, track data, track everything. I want to finish up on that.

They love it, and I think they fear it.

I think they love it.

Well …

I think it’s a great medium for them. I think it works really well in a lot of ways. Getting to whether these companies should be broken up, the way you beat this, to me, is competition and innovation, and even if you have a China that’s funding all its companies, you can’t be innovative except with lots of new companies, lots of new ideas, which is the way we got ahead in the first place.

Are tech companies too big from your perspective? Does it pose a danger from an intelligence point of view and everything else if all this power is in the hands of a few companies, AI or whatever, data or probably everything related to that?

I think we have probably the greatest concentration of market power in our history, and we ought to be looking at the question of, should any of these companies be broken up, and what would that look like, and what’s the cost of that transition? I think those are questions that are very much before Congress. I don’t know the answer at this point. I also think we need to look at that profound question over whether they should still have the immunity that they do.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Nothing makes Silicon Valley sweat more.

Well, nothing may make them more highly motivated to do the right thing than the fear of losing that. We’re losing it, but I do think it’s time for us to do that vigorous oversight and make those judgments. It’s ironic that the intel committee was the first to do oversight of Silicon Valley in a meaningful way, and it’s only because of how that issue came to us through Russian manipulation, but those kind of hearings should have been going on now for years, but they are starting now in the Congress, and the Judiciary Committee, the …

There’s a lot of hearings. What’s the law that will be passed first, the guardrail?

I would think that if there’s major action to be had here, it will more likely come on immunity provision before a breakup.

Wow.

But that’s just a hunch.

That’s something you agree with the Republicans on, interestingly. You’re not at the Antisocial Social Media Summit right now in the White House, are you? You weren’t invited?

No. The last time I went to the White House, which was about a week ago when were almost at war with Iran, the president looked quite surprised to see me.

Oh, really?

Yes.

You’re allowed in there, right?

I was invited.

But you weren’t invited to the summit?

I don’t think so.

You’re not really a conspiracy theorist, but sometimes conspiracy theories are true in lots of ways. What is the thing that you worry the most about?

What I worry the most about is when I was mentioning, that authoritarianism is gaining ground, and if we don’t figure out these big economic challenges, we have seen really bad things happen when people are under enormous economic strife. Already, we’re seeing that manifest in this really ugly form of xenophobic populism. If the economic situation gets worse around the world, and we’ve been in a boom for a long time, then there’s no telling where that goes, and I think figuring out those big economic questions is imperative for our economic future.

But it’s also imperative for dealing with these forces that are propelling this angry populism, but I also fear that as we cozy up to the Kim Jong Uns and have our love affair with these dictators that the rest of the world is not standing still. And, yes, the next president, the new president, can begin quickly to repair some of the damage, but some of the damage is not going to be easily undone, and so that global picture is what concerns me the most.

Lastly, you deal with a lot of the intelligence of a lot of new technologies that are coming. Is there one that worries you the most? Is it facial recognition? Is it AI? Which one of them is done in the wrong way from an intelligence point of view?

I guess what I would say, and this is a very inadequate shorthand, but 5G may tie this all together and make it much more efficient to pull in the CCTV and the social media scores and the facial recognition software. It begins to look very Orwellian, and I guess that technological autocracy is what I worry about in the tech sphere, that China is just blazing the trail for. Once that’s gotten ahold, it’s very hard to take apart, and so we’ve got more than our share of challenges.

I’ll leave you with a happy one. What do you like about technology when you think about it from any point of view, the intelligence point, your personal point of view? What do you like about it?

Oh, I also represent the entertainment industry.

You do? They got the crap kicked out of them by technology.

I’m an avid consumer of film and music. I love the ease with which I can watch things and share things and find my way around. I make ample use of technology.

I will say one thing, the big fallacy of technology, which it took me a long time to realize: In the beginning, smart technology gave you the illusion that you could get more free time because you could be much more efficient.

No.

But no, it’s completely the opposite.

No, Adam Schiff. You have to stare at it all the time.

One of the reasons why I like scuba diving, because apart from the technology that keeps you alive …

You can put a screen in your mask, and that’ll tell you what the fish are. It’ll be AR. Did you know that?

What’s that?

There are screens on masks like that where you will wear them down. Fish …

Oh, will help you identify the fish?

The fish, it’ll tell you about them. Would you like that?

As long as I don’t get Donald Trump’s text messages when I’m 50 feet below because I would quickly run out of oxygen.

All right. I’ll leave it on that. Congressman Schiff, thank you so much, and we’re looking forward to hearings next week, and we’ll see what comes of it. Thank you.

Thank you.

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.


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