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Adam Schiff is Democrats' Ken Starr

Photos: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images; Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is the closest thing to a Ken Starr that exists for President Trump's impeachment inquiry — at least for now — lawmakers and committee staff tell Axios.

The bottom line: In the absence of an independent or special counsel to manage the Ukraine investigation, Schiff has taken on a dual-hat role, as both a key committee chairman and chief investigator.

  • Much like Starr, Schiff is there at the crux of key interviews behind closed doors and efforts to gather evidence that may further the impeachment inquiry.

What they’re saying: Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard and a Trump critic, told me Schiff would have been less likely to play this role — and might have had a harder time justifying it — if not for Attorney General Bill Barr.

  • "If Attorney General Barr had accepted [a CIA lawyer’s attempt to make a] criminal referral and opened a meaningful inquiry, presumably with the appointment of a special counsel, he would’ve been in a position to say that the current congressional inquiry had to be put on hold."
  • Tribe says, in hindsight, Trump may have wished that process had been put in place because it might have pre-empted the congressional inquiry and run out the clock between now and the election.
  • "Now it’s too late. The irony is that, by trying to play the role of Roy Cohn to Donald Trump, William Barr has basically screwed his boss. If Trump had half a brain, he would be, well, pissed."

The backdrop: Starr was named independent counsel during the Clinton administration to investigate a series of scandals involving the First Family. He eventually adapted the investigation to focus on President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and the president's eventual alleged perjury before a grand jury.

  • He quickly became the face of Republicans' impeachment efforts at the time.
  • Lanny Davis, then one of Clinton's lawyers, described Starr as the villain of Clinton impeachment, and said their team's war room strategy was to attack Starr as such.

What's next: It's unclear exactly how Schiff’s role and modus operandi will change if Democrats move forward with a formal impeachment vote, Democratic leadership aides say.

  • Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed the caucus to keep their investigations narrowly focused on Ukraine, the aides say the findings that other committees have uncovered — such as potential obstruction of justice charges from the House Judiciary Committee's investigation — will likely also be part of the potential articles of impeachment.
  • The aides add that, as of now, there have not been talks as to who would ultimately lead the process of a formal vote, and they have not yet discussed bringing in someone from the outside, though that option remains open.