North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr isn’t big on news conferences or public statements. Sometimes his profile can seem as cloaked as the agencies he oversees as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But now that President Trump appears to have again invited a foreign country to meddle in U.S. politics and the acting director of national intelligence is balking at a requirement to tell Congress about what happened, North Carolina’s senior senator should speak out.
Burr has a poor record when it comes to standing up to Trump. Yes, over the objections of his fellow Republicans, he did bring the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., before his committee for a second time as it investigated Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. But his committee’s findings have so far left the president unscathed. And it’s notable that Burr joined the Trump campaign as its national security adviser despite having been briefed on Russia’s attempts to interfere with the election to Hillary Clinton’s detriment. He also, at the White House’s request, made calls to reporters investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
But even given that record, it is surprising that Burr says he won’t comment about Trump’s pressuring the president of Ukraine until he knows more. Trump admits he asked Ukraine’s President Volodmyr Zelensky to investigate whether former Vice President Joe Biden played a role in the ending of an Ukrainian investigation into a gas company that employed Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
Trump says he raised the issue because he was trying to limit corruption in Ukraine to protect U.S. aid to that country. The more likely explanation is that Trump was pressuring the head of a foreign government to collect information that could be used against Biden, his potential Democratic opponent in 2020.
It is well-established that congressional Republicans will respond to the president’s outrageous actions with anything but outrage. They prefer rationalizations or silence. But this would seem an occasion where Burr has no choice but to raise an objection. According to the Washington Post, Trump’s action came to light after a U.S. intelligence official submitted a whistleblower complaint to the inspector general of the intelligence community, who found the complaint substantial and urgent. Nonetheless, continuing a Trump administration pattern of resisting Congress and the law, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to share the information with congressional intelligence committees as is legally required.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the information must be sent to the committees. “This case has a national security piece to it that is very alarming,” she said, “Right now they are breaking the law.”
Burr, as of late Monday afternoon, had made no comment on the Trump administration’s subverting a law meant to protect intelligence officials who report wrongdoing. It’s possible that Burr, who relishes the secrecy of his committee’s work, is addressing the matter behind the scenes, but that is hardly enough.
Trump has repeatedly acted above the law, but the Ukraine incident has brought opposition to his actions to a boil. Many Democrats say impeachment is the only proper and adequate response.
Burr says this is his last term. He doesn’t need to worry about a Trump-inspired primary against him. As the leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he should assert the authority of a co-equal branch of government.
This isn’t simply a matter of Burr carrying out his role as chairman. It is about protecting the democratic system. Many Americans now wonder whether America’s institutions can protect the nation against a rogue leader. What is Burr’s answer?