Republican Richard Burr has been many things during his more than 12 years in the U.S. Senate – a policy wonk who likes to get into the weeds, a reliable conservative and a preppy prone to going sockless.
But he has rarely sought the limelight – infrequently appearing on the Sunday talk shows and preferring to quietly tour local businesses rather than holding news conferences back home.
As a result, Burr – while politically successful – has never achieved the fame or devoted following of such Tar Heel senators as Jesse Helms, Elizabeth Dole, John Edwards or Terry Sanford.
But Burr is now on the biggest stage of his career.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr has been thrust into the middle of the investigation of Russian meddling in the last presidential election and whether Russia tried to help Donald Trump win the presidency.
As veteran political consultant Walter de Vries of Wrightsville Beach has recently noted, that has placed Burr in a position – similar to the late Sen. Sam Ervin – “to achieve historical greatness in the way he runs his committee’s investigation.”
Ervin, a conservative Democrat and a longtime judge, was chairman of the Senate’s committee on Watergate in 1973-74, which investigated the Watergate scandal, leading to the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon.
Before Watergate, Ervin’s national reputation was mixed. He was admired by many on the left for standing up against McCarthyism and for fighting to defend constitutional rights, and was admired on the right for his fiscal conservatism, strong support for the military and by some for his staunch backing of racial segregation.
But his handling of the nationally-televised Watergate hearings, with his folksy but tough questioning of witnesses, would make him into a national figure. There were T-shirts and books of his wit and wisdom printed or published.
The Ervin/Watergate analogy gained new resonance this week, when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating the Russian ties. Some drew parallels with Nixon’s firing of independent prosecutor Archibald Cox in the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, creating a political firestorm.
Burr was not happy with Comey’s ouster, who he has said had been more forthcoming with information than any FBI director he had ever dealt with.
“I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” Burr said in a statement. “I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”
Burr has had to fight Democratic skepticism that he would be an Ervin-like bulldog in leading an investigation of Trump and any possible Russian ties.
Much has been made of Burr’s comments during the fall campaign, when Burr said there was no “separation” between himself and Trump.
Burr campaigned with Trump in Winston-Salem and stood by him when the incendiary video surfaced showing Trump in 2005 boasting about groping women.
Burr said the reason he was backing Trump was his low regard for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. He told Republicans that it was a letter from him and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee that prompted an FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails.
Trump named Burr to his campaign national security advisory council in October.
But the Trump-Burr connection can be overdrawn. Trump was not Burr’s first choice for the GOP nomination – and probably not his third or fourth choice. Burr, a conventional conservative, backed Trump only after it became clear he would be the nominee.
There had been Democratic skepticism of Burr from the beginning, with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York calling for an independent probe. That was underscored in February when it was reported that Burr called reporters at the White House’s request to rebut reports of collaboration between Russian agents and the Trump campaign.
In March, Burr and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Democrat, held a joint news conference to pledge bipartisan cooperation – in marked contrast to the chaos in the House investigation where chairman Devin Nunes announced he was stepping aside from the Trump/Russia investigation.
“This investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads,” Burr said. Warner expressed confidence in Burr. “If you get nothing else from today, take that statement to the bank,” Warner said.
Burr and Warner have developed a close working relationship that includes leading a congressional delegation to Europe last year at the time of the terrorist bombings in Brussels. Each has declined to contribute to the other’s opponent in their most recent campaigns, according to The Washington Post.
But since the kumbaya news conference, Democrats have been suggesting that Burr has been slow-walking the investigation.
“The last few weeks, things have moved very, very slowly under Chairman Burr’s leadership,” Schumer reportedly said. “I am a little troubled by it.” Meanwhile, a group called The Democratic Coalition Against Trump recently filed an ethics complaint against Burr, asserting that he is impeding the Trump/Russia probe.
Burr has told reporters that the public needs to be patient. “Give us time,” Burr said. “Our staff has just completed the first round of triage of thousands of documents. We’re methodically going through the process of interviewing every individual that had some role to play in the construction of the (intelligence) report of the last administration.”
Burr said that as of May 1 there were nine staffers working on the investigation, but he said there were still weeks of work left to be done before hearings could be held.
Earlier this month, Burr’s committee asked at least four Trump campaign associates to disclose any meetings they had with “any Russian official or representative or Russian business interests.”
There could hardly be a more politically sensitive investigation than one into whether a hostile foreign power interfered with a U.S. presidential election.
Burr will likely be criticized no matter what his committee finds.
Warner said recently that the Russia/Trump investigation is “the most important thing I have ever done in my public life.”
If that is true for Burr’s wingman, it is doubly true for Burr, who has said this will be his last term.