Center seat for Burr, a career-defining moment in Russia probe

Ranking Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, left, and Sen. Richard Burr, right, of the Senate Intelligence Committee
Ranking Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, left, and Sen. Richard Burr, right, of the Senate Intelligence Committee Getty Images

The Watergate comparisons were dismissed at first – the attempts to draw similarities between the coverup scandal over a break-in that drove Richard Nixon from the presidency in 1974 and the probe of Donald Trump’s campaign and possible connections to Russians.

But now, with Trump’s abrupt dismissal of James Comey as director of the FBI, coming as Comey was seeking additional funding and personnel for the Russia probe, the president is hearing comparisons to Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” the dismissal of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which led to the resignations of the two top officials in the Justice Department. And there’s another comparison to be made: Like Nixon, Trump seems to be his own worst enemy.

But for North Carolinians, the most interesting Watergate comparison may be that of the the late beloved “Senator Sam” Ervin to current senior Sen. Richard Burr.

Ervin, of course, became famous as the colorful and brilliant chair of the Senate Watergate Committee, and his folksy wisdom and unblinking integrity drove the Nixon White House to distraction and helped, certainly, to drive Nixon from the White House.

Burr is not colorful, and his 23 years in Washington (10 in the House, 12-plus in the Senate) have been uneventful. He’s been a reliable opponent of environmental regulation and has the standard boiler-plate list of right-wing gripes against social programs.

Notably, after becoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr tried to protect the secrecy of reports on CIA torture of prisoners. Not his finest hour – by a long shot.

But now Burr stands virtually alone as the person to lead the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. The House investigation fell apart after a key committee chairman was shown to have shared information with the White House. Comey was fired. And Trump remains a literal wild card, liable to tweet something outrageous at any second.

This is Burr’s moment, his defining moment, and his handling of the investigation is going to be his legacy at the end of his third Senate term and nearly 30 years in Washington almost six years hence.

Burr’s already criticized the firing of Comey, and he was right. But will he stand by his tough talk about forcing Trump’s people to hand over documents to his committee? And will he buck his majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who doesn’t want a special prosecutor?

Burr has a chance for leadership that rarely comes to individual senators. He will be measured and tested literally around the world.

He must: allow investigators to go where their sources and information takes them; demand cooperation from the highest-level White House aides; get down to the details of what exactly the Russians may have done to help Trump with the election; find out the types of favors Russian officials might have had in mind, if they indeed did meddle; give the members of his committee a free hand to publicly – publicly – examine witnesses.

Yes, some sensitive material may demand closed-door meetings, but Burr must understand that the more secrecy he allows, the less credibility his committee will have with the public. Trump likewise will suffer from secrecy – unless he has something to hide.

Burr, 61, may hold Donald Trump’s future in his hands. He most certainly holds his own.

Video: U.S. Senator Richard Burr says the previous administration wanted to 'rotate' world leadership as he speaks at a foreign policy forum in Raleigh Friday. He says that wasn't a good idea.