Burr needs to win trust after the Mueller report

The release of the Mueller report sends the investigative ball to the court of Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is still probing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

But the ball comes back with a surprising new spin: The Mueller report indicates that Burr fed information to the White House about whom the FBI was focusing on in its investigation into Russian interference. If so, the N.C. Republican abused his access to information provided by the FBI to the so-called “Gang of Eight,” a group limited to top congressional leaders and the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Then-FBI Director James Comey briefed the group on March 9, 2017, a time when President Trump was two months into office and eager to know where the FBI investigation was headed. The Mueller report says: “The week after Comey’s briefing, the White House Counsel’s Office was in contact with SSCI Chairman Senator Richard Burr about the Russian investigations and appears to have received information about the status of the FBI investigations.”

According to notes taken by former White House counsel Don McGahn’s chief of staff, Annie Donaldson, Burr disclosed that there were “4-5 targets” of the FBI investigation. They included former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, campaign aide Carter Page, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and “the Greek Guy,” an apparent reference to George Papadopoulos, who had advised the Trump campaign on foreign policy. (Burr himself was a national security adviser to the Trump campaign.)

This information comes on top of a previous disclosure that Burr complied with a Trump administration request that he call reporters to knock-down stories that alleged repeated contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. Following that report, North Carolina’s senior senator made efforts to avoid contact with the White House and to encourage a bipartisan approach to his committee’s investigation.

That was a welcome change, but the Mueller report’s revelation may complicate Burr’s relationship with Intelligence Committee Democrats, who have supported him as a chairman committed to finding the full truth. Burr did not comment Thursday on the Mueller report’s information about his actions. He praised Attorney General William Barr for releasing the report as fully as possible and said, I look forward to presenting the American people with an accounting of the facts the Committee has uncovered as we conclude our own investigation.”

As a prelude to that accounting, Burr should explain why he gave privileged information to the White House and how it did not compromise his role as chairman of a parallel investigation. If he chooses to wave off his action as a mere courtesy communication, he could wave off the credibility of his committee’s findings.

Those findings, in the long run, may be more significant than Mueller’s. Attention for two years has focused on possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. Mueller found no direct coordination, but he did find plenty of evidence that Russians tried to affect the 2016 presidential election. The scandal in the latter case isn’t that the Russians tried, but that Americans were oblivious and vulnerable to the threat. Indeed even today, President Trump is more consumed with attacking the Mueller investigation than he is with protecting the nation’s electoral process from foreign interference.