Burr’s all clear on Russia collusion raises doubts

Sen. Richard Burr
Sen. Richard Burr AP

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr was expected to be centerstage as Congress investigated possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. But the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has instead spurned the spotlight and now is saying that his committee’s cloaked review has found no evidence of collusion.

In an interview with CBS News, Burr said: “If we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.”

Clearly, in North Carolina political pantheon, Sen. Sam Ervin’s historic role as leader of the Watergate Committee is in no danger of being upstaged by Burr’s muted turn as chief inquisitor into a possible presidential scandal. Indeed, the only substantial applause for Burr’s performance has come from the one most threatened by the committee’s investigation.

President Trump greeted Burr’s assessment with a triumphant tweet: “Senator Richard Burr, The Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, just announced that after almost two years, more than two hundred interviews, and thousands of documents, they have found NO COLLUSION BETWEEN TRUMP AND RUSSIA! Is anybody really surprised by this?”

Burr’s skeptics weren’t. The senator served as national security adviser to the Trump campaign and early in his committee’s inquiry acted on a White House request that he call reporters to knock down stories about collusion. Burr and the ranking member of the committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, have made a show of bipartisan cooperation on the investigation, but now it looks like getting along may have ended with the Democratic committee members getting played. Burr refused to bring in key Trump campaign figures for public hearings and declined to beef up the committee’s investigative staff as the inquiry got underway.

Warner pushed back on Burr’s all clear, telling reporters in the Capitol last Tuesday, “There’s never been a campaign in American history ... that people affiliated with the campaign had as many ties with Russia as the Trump campaign did.”

That point was underscored just days after Burr’s no-collusion statement when a federal judge ruled that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort had lied to investigators about handing campaign polling data to a Ukrainian business associate the FBI says has links to Russian intelligence. That was followed by a report that the former acting head of the FBI, Andrew G. McCabe, feared in May 2017 that Trump was intent on killing any investigation into Russian election interference.

By giving Trump cause to claim exoneration, Burr has intensified scrutiny of his own actions, or lack of them. Last Wednesday, Ryan Goodman, a New York University lawyer who is co-editor-in-chief of the online publication Just Security, gave a harsh review of Burr’s performance in an article headlined: ”Who is Richard Burr, really? Why the public can’t trust his voice in the Russia probe.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee may yet produce significant findings, but after two years it has shed little light.

Burr told CBS News, “We’ll be judged at the end of this on the product that we produce.”

Yes, he will.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com