Low-key Burr steps into the spotlight as Congress probes Russian actions

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, will play a key role in congressional investigations of any communications between the Trump campaign and Russian agents.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, will play a key role in congressional investigations of any communications between the Trump campaign and Russian agents. TNS

Now beginning his third term in the United States Senate, North Carolina’s Richard Burr has his toughest task before him. As the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, it will fall to him to oversee a monumentally serious task, the investigation of Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election and now, the connection to Russia before that election with Michael Flynn, the resigned national security adviser.

That means the investigation will go right to the White House, where President Trump — whose candidacy Burr supported — has touted the benefits of good relations with Vladimir Putin and Russia and at one point in his campaign, seemed to cheer for Russians to hack the emails of people connected to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Those reckless, ill-chosen words now are coming back to haunt the president, who seems to have reacted angrily to revelations about Flynn’s contacts with a Russian ambassador as more a problem of leaks and an evil media than a breach of protocol and improper contacts by Flynn.

Burr and his GOP leaders, along with ranking Intelligence Democrat Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, are now talking about a wider-ranging investigation that will include not just Russian hacking but any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russians.

This is a test unlike any other Burr has faced in an otherwise uneventful Senate career, and it’s likely to be the one by which he will be judged when he finishes what he says will be his last term. This must be an aggressive investigation with its results made public to the fullest extent. Burr previously supressed a report on CIA torture, calling it “partisan.” His job is not to protect intelligence agencies; nor is it to protect the White House.

It appears Republican leaders recognize the seriousness of the accusations involving Russia, even if Trump does not.

There are echoes here of the last time a North Carolinian stood center stage in a confrontation with a president. In May of 1973, Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin was 76 years old and in his last term. He got the challenging task of chairing the Senate Watergate Committee, going up against a defiant president. Ervin had not been as low profile as Burr, but was certainly a conservative by any definition. But in his hearings, assisted by Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee, Ervin was methodical and demanding and in the end, got to the truth.

No one knows yet what the truth is in the saga of the Russians and the emails and the elections and the role of Michael Flynn. But the truth must be told, and that is for the president’s benefit. Until the Russian matter is fully vetted, no matter the outcome of hearings, Trump will be hindered in his agenda, if he has one.

Burr and his colleagues must be prepared, of course, for the slings and arrows of Trump and his aides, who show little respect for Congress or its leaders, and are willing to fire accusations at anyone who stands in their way. But Sen. Burr has a duty, and he has the Congress and the Constitution behind him and in Warner, a strong and veteran senator who has vowed to pull no punches in the pursuit of the facts.

Those facts will be found on a winding and hazardous road. The truth, the whole truth, is not yet known, and it might prove either clarifying for the presidency of Donald Trump or painful. North Carolina’s Richard Burr will have more of a role in finding it than anyone on Capitol Hill. It is his moment, and his challenge.