Ned Barnett

In Russia probe, Richard Burr is no Sam Ervin

What to know about Michael Flynn and the Russia probe

Here are the events that lead up to Michael Flynn's guilty plea in the FBI’s Russia investigation.
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Here are the events that lead up to Michael Flynn's guilty plea in the FBI’s Russia investigation.

As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr is supposed to be leading a crucial investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with those efforts. But a New York Times report on Friday raises questions about how rigorously the senator is pursuing his historic role in an investigation into what could be the most serious political scandal since Watergate.

The Times reported that President Trump has repeatedly urged senior Senate Republicans, including Burr, to end the Intelligence Committee’s investigation into alleged Russian interference. “It was something along the lines of, ‘I hope you can conclude this as quickly as possible,’ ” Burr said. A source who the Times describes as “close to Burr” said Trump’s request of the chairman was “very forceful.”

The president also is said to have pressed Sen. Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and also a member of the Intelligence Committee, to wrap up the probe quickly. Trump made the same appeal to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

By now, Trump’s repeated flouting of conflict-of-interest standards and his disregard for the separation of powers has made this sort of request from him common, but it should not be accepted as normal. Burr, however, shrugged it off as an understandable breach by a business deal-maker who is unfamiliar with government protocol. “Businessmen are paid to skip things that they think they can skip and get away with,” he told the Times.

Well, in this case, Trump did get away with it. The pressure from a president who may end up a target of the probe didn’t become public until the Times reported it. At a minimum, Burr should have told the president that his request was improper and he should not raise the issue again with him or any member of his committee. Instead, Burr said he told Trump that “when we have exhausted everybody we need to talk to, we will finish.”

With a reply like that, Trump can feel comfortable that he isn’t dealing with the likes of an earlier North Carolina senator who led the committee that investigated the Watergate scandal – Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin.

Rufus Edmisten, the former North Carolina Attorney General who served as a top aide to Ervin during Watergate, said he has discussed the challenges of the Russia investigation with Burr and is confident in his leadership. But he said Ervin would have taken a different approach to a president asking him to end his investigation quickly.

“Sam Ervin would have cut that off in a second,” Edmisten said. “He would have felt irate. You just don’t do that.”

Rufus 1
Rufus Edmisten (left) with Sen. Sam Ervin on the Watergate committee. Courtesy Rufus Edmisten

Burr’s tolerant response to Trump became especially troubling after the president’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador last December. Flynn’s plea and his apparent agreement to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation strengthens the possibility that involvement with the Russians occurred at the top levels of the Trump campaign.

In contrast, Burr sounds like a chairman willing to go through the motions, checking off the obvious witnesses and those the Democrats demand to have testify. He seems like a chairman who would be content with a committee report confirming what the nation’s intelligence agencies have already found and then having the Senate Intelligence Committee’s agenda move on to other subjects.

Burr’s lackadaisical response to Trump follows reports from February in which he complied with a White House request to counter news reports linking Trump campaign associates to Russia. He said he had talked to the White House and news organizations about the reports when he was aware of intelligence that didn’t support the news stories.

“I’ve had those conversations,” Burr said, adding, “I felt I had something to share that didn’t breach my responsibilities to the committee in an ongoing investigation.”

Burr, in the most prominent role of his political life, appears not particularly alarmed about a foreign attack on the democratic process nor curious about whether a presidential campaign was part of it. To which one can only respond, “Thank God for Robert Mueller.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@