In his 12 years in the U.S. Senate, and 10 previous years in the U.S. House, Richard Burr of North Carolina has been a low-profile member of Congress. His legislative accomplishments have been few, though he’s said to do his constituent service duty well.
Nevertheless, Burr has won election to the Senate three times now, so he clearly has the support of a majority of voters in North Carolina, who may appreciate the fact that the senior senator now holds the prestigious post of chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Now, however, Burr faces a high-pressure test unlike any he’s faced. His committee will be investigating whether Russia interfered in the United States presidential election through cyber hacking that went into computers of the Democratic National Committee and those of John Podesta, campaign manager for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The hacking, from whoever was responsible, resulted in a steady diet of leaks of emails throughout the campaign — emails that were not revealing of criminal activity, but certainly cast doubt in the minds of some voters about Clinton’s credibility.
President-elect Donald Trump, with steady barrages of tweets and references to Clinton’s emails throughout the campaign, at one point even appeared to be cheering on the possibility that the Russians were responsible. In the summer, he said at one point during a news conference, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Like so many of Trump’s comments, the now-president-elect felt few consequences among his followers.
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Now, Trump’s campaign seems to be responding to the building controversy over the hacking by claiming questions and investigations are illegitimate and the product of a political effort to question the legitimacy of Trump’s victory. (Clinton’s lead in the popular vote is now 2.7 million votes.)
The problem for Trump is that his own angry, dismissive responses are in effect directed at members of his own party in Congress, where leaders are the ones who have called for investigation. No less than Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the hard-right GOP majority leader, called for Burr’s committee to investigate. And Burr said his committee will “conduct vigorous oversight” of the issue. House Speaker Paul Ryan, always a reluctant Trump supporter, said “any foreign intervention in our elections is entirely unacceptable. And any intervention by Russia is especially problematic because, under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests.”
The first major crisis of Trump’s presidency has thus arisen before there is a Trump presidency. President Obama rightly has demanded that intelligence agencies finish a report before he leaves office on January 20 — little more than a month from now.
Make no mistake: This is not just politics. And North Carolina Rep. David Price summed it up: “This is pretty much uncharted territory ... This is a very, very serious matter.”
Members of Congress, Democratic and Republican, understand that, even if Trump appears to be writing it all off to resentment by his political opponents. But before the president-elect becomes the president, the American people must have confidence that they are the ones who put him in office — without an assist from the Russians.