On the campaign trail last fall, GOP Sen. Richard Burr told North Carolina voters there was no “separation” between himself and Donald Trump. The Senate Intelligence Committee chairman also bragged about his role in getting the FBI to investigate Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Now, the third-term senator is under fire for running interference for the White House last week on a news report asserting repeated contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. And some Democrats are wondering whether Burr, who also served as a national security adviser to Trump’s campaign, is too close to Trump to lead an impartial investigation.
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These Democrats are weighing whether to be more vocal about their concerns in a bid to pressure GOP leaders to create a more independent select committee or outside commission to handle the investigation.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday that Burr had been put “on notice” by Democrats and that his decision to help the White House rebut negative news stories “certainly gives the appearance, if not the reality, of a lack of impartiality.” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said over the weekend he had “grave concerns” about Burr’s conduct.
Even two intelligence committee Republicans — Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine — made statements over the weekend that the investigation must be seen as credible. Collins said members of the panel must “avoid any actions that might be perceived as compromising the integrity of our work.”
Burr’s allies, though, defend him as a man of integrity perfectly suited for the task ahead.
“I know him to be honest, and I know him to be thorough,” said John Bryant, a lawyer in Raleigh who’s been friends with Burr since they played football together at Wake Forest. “I don’t think it would be a political problem if coming down hard on [Trump] is the right thing to do.”
Paul Shumaker, a North Carolina political consultant who ran Burr’s successful campaign last year for a third term, said Burr does not plan to run for reelection again and has been freed from political considerations as he pursues the truth behind Russia’s involvement in the presidential election.
“He is independent of the shackles of a reelection campaign,” Shumaker said of the laid-back senator, famous on Capitol Hill for driving a beat-up 1974 Volkswagen Thing.
Shumaker added that Burr puts his job as intelligence chairman above anything else, including politics — a reference to the heat Burr took last year for doing little campaigning until the final month before Election Day, even though his race was expected to be close.
Shumaker attributed Burr’s late start to his committee duties in Washington.
“He told me that there are going to be times when you are going to have to run this campaign without a candidate,” said Shumaker, who’s been Burr’s chief political strategist since he was first elected to the House in 1994 after a career at a lawn and garden equipment company. “I know this is a guy who was willing to sacrifice his own reelection if need be to do that job as chairman.”
Burr, 61, became intelligence chairman after Republicans retook control of the Senate in 2015, succeeding Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). He has been a staunch advocate for the intelligence community, defending its surveillance programs and the controversial interrogation methods used by the CIA under President George W. Bush. The senator, whose office declined an interview request, has also sought to prevent the full version of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s exhaustive report on CIA torture from ever being released. In 2014 he told reporters, “I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the Intelligence Committee should ever be discussed publicly.”
“Sen. Burr has committed himself to the selfless oversight of the intelligence community since he served in the House of Representatives,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “He is a very capable leader on a vital committee who will conduct a professional responsible review of Russian interference into our elections.”
Democrats, though, are wary of Burr’s commitment to an even-handed investigation, though many would only discuss their concerns privately for fear of upsetting the uneasy truce between the chairman and Warner.
“There is deep skepticism of [Burr’s] ability to be impartial, but there is optimism that Mark Warner can pressure him into doing the right thing,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “Democrats are suspicious that this is McConnell’s way of trying to bury this.”
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said he and his fellow Democrats were willing to go along with Burr’s investigation for now, but warned that “as soon as I’m convinced that the investigation is being foreshortened or quashed, I am going to insist on an independent committee.”
Burr was one of the staunchest supporters of Trump’s campaign in the Senate. In October, he was named to the candidate’s national security advisory council.
Burr campaigned with Trump in Winston-Salem and stuck by the real-estate mogul even as other Republican senators dropped their support after a video surfaced of Trump in 2005 bragging about groping women. At a rally in late October, Burr told voters there was “not a separation between me and Donald Trump” and addressed the fact that attack ads were calling him too cozy to Trump.
“I’m cozy to Donald Trump because I know Hillary Clinton,” he said at the rally, according to video from the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge.
Burr also drew attention just before Election Day after a recording was leaked to CNN of him joking to Republican campaign volunteers about gun owners putting a “bullseye” on Clinton — remarks for which he apologized.
In the recording, he also discussed the investigation into Clinton’s emails — saying a letter by him and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was what got the FBI to investigate Clinton in the first place.
“I’ll tell you a little secret,” he said. “The FBI never would have investigated the emails had it not been for a letter that Bob Corker and I sent to the inspector general of the intelligence community that kicked this all off.”
FBI Director James Comey’s decision to re-open the investigation less than two weeks before Election Day was a “gift,” Burr said, before calling Anthony Weiner “the gift that keeps on giving.”
These political barbs are certain to be on the minds of Democratic senators as they seek to ensure Burr pursues an aggressive investigation.
Many Democrats and a few Republicans have called for an independent commission or select committee to investigate the issue, but McConnell and other GOP leaders have refused. A separate investigation would give Republican leaders less control over the process.
Several Democratic operatives who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity said that so far there are reasons to be optimistic about Burr’s investigation — and that this optimism is part of what’s holding Democratic senators back from being more open about their concerns about Burr.
The investigation, though, almost fell apart last month before it even got going.
Burr initially told reporters his investigation would not look into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow as part of its larger investigation of Russia’s election meddling, saying that was outside his jurisdiction.
But Warner enlisted every Democrat on the panel in what became an implicit threat to boycott the probe if Burr did not backtrack.
A day later, Burr and Warner issued a joint statement making clear they would, in fact, investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — and Democrats are signaling they’re satisfied with the progress of the probe so far, even though it’s still in its early stages.
Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina GOP strategist, said Burr is “not going to want” to turn the investigation into a “political circus.”
“The perception is Richard is hardworking, responsible, even-tempered and doesn’t get carried away with politics,” Wrenn said. “He’ll look at it and investigate it and see what the facts are.”
But Warner made clear over the weekend his confidence was shaken by Burr’s latest actions.
“I will not accept any process that is undermined by political interference,” Warner said, adding that he wants to ensure “the American people get the thorough, impartial investigation that they deserve, free from White House interference.”