North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr has always been known as an affable member of Congress who prefers going along to leading. But now his accommodating style is taking on a disturbing edge in his new role as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The Washington Post reported Friday that Burr made phone calls to reporters at the White House’s request in an effort to refute reports by The New York Times and CNN about collaboration between Russian agents and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“I’ve had those conversations,” Burr told the Post. He said trying to knock down the news reports was appropriate. “I felt I had something to share that didn’t breach my responsibilities to the committee in an ongoing investigation,” he explained.
Burr’s admission is alarming. He has disqualified himself as a fair and trustworthy investigator into the matter of the Trump campaign’s possible coordination with the Russian government.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he called Burr and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who also participated in the effort, to say they had jeopardized the independence of the investigation.
Warner said in a statement posted on his website late Friday: “I have called Director Pompeo and Chairman Burr to express my grave concerns about what this means for the independence of this investigation and a bipartisan commitment to follow the facts, and to reinforce that I will not accept any process that is undermined by political interference.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and a member of the Intelligence Committee, went further. He said Burr’s actions show that an independent commission is needed to ensure an impartial investigation.
“If Chairman Burr is discussing classified matters with the press and pre-judging the committee’s investigation, all at the behest of the White House, it’s hard to imagine how he could convince me or the public of his impartiality,” Wyden said in an e-mail statement to Bloomberg news. “If that is the case, I intend to co-sponsor legislation creating an independent commission to investigate Russia’s interference in our democracy.”
What could Burr have been thinking? Partisanship doesn’t really explain it. Burr did endorse Trump, but it was more of a tactical decision than an enthusiastic one. Republican senators generally were cool to Trump’s candidacy, though they’ve welcomed his election as an opening to pass tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and eliminate financial and environmental regulations.
But all that can be accomplished even if an investigation were to lead to President Trump’s removal or resignation. Indeed, a President Pence would likely be more efficient and consistent in carrying out the core Republican agenda.
If partisanship doesn’t explain Burr’s breach, the only explanation left is incompetence. He simply bumbled his way across the line of propriety and still doesn’t realize he crossed it. But ignorance of what’s right is hardly an excuse and certainly not a cause for reassurance. If Burr’s investigation is not blinded by partisanship, it will be hobbled by a lack of perception.
That Burr has forfeited his credibility before his committee’s probe is fully underway is especially notable in comparison to the North Carolina senator his role should mirror, Sen. Sam Ervin. Ervin, a Democrat, led the Watergate Committee whose relentless questioning exposed a White House coverup and forced the 1974 resignation of President Nixon. Burr, by contrast, has become part of the White House’s evasive maneuvering at a time when he is supposed to be the chief inquisitor.
What makes Burr’s actions even worse is that he is responsible for investigating a situation that is potentially far more serious than Watergate. Nixon’s operatives took illegal actions to help a campaign that Nixon was almost certain to win anyway. But Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign may have changed the outcome and helped elect a president who could now be beholden to a foreign adversary.
The only decent course for Burr to take now is to support a call for an independent commission to investigate this matter as Americans rather than as Democrats and Republicans. Burr won’t do that, of course, but he inadvertently may have made an independent panel possible.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett @newsobserver.com