A place you don’t want to be in Washington is in the pages of Mueller report. Aside from the obvious subjects of the special counsel’s report, there are a number of Senate Republicans who don’t come off looking so good.
And this week, allegations in the report that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) fed the White House information about secret investigations is adding fuel to his critics as he tries to finish his own investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Burr is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating Russian interference alongside special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. This week, Burr’s committee subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. to force the president’s son to come back to testify to the committee. This show of force from a Republican-led committee was entirely dissonant with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) declaration days earlier that Trump and Russia was “case closed.”
Before the Mueller report, Burr’s subpoena might have seemed like a bipartisan move to seek the facts. But the subpoena is seen in a different light now that we know Mueller thinks Burr fed the White House information about the Russia probe.
According to Mueller, Burr got a briefing by the then-FBI director, James B. Comey, in early 2017 — before Mueller was on the job — about whom the FBI was investigating in its Russia-Trump probe.
Mueller cites notes from a top White House aide that Burr told White House officials there were four to five “targets” of the investigation and outlined who they were. This was right around the time Trump was documented by a White House aide as being “in panic/chaos” about the Russia investigation, and aides appeared pressured to get him information. A spokeswoman for Burr told The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian that the senator doesn’t remember this conversation taking place.
UPDATE: In an interview this week with Demirjian, Burr seemed to remember the conversation. But he said he was referencing people who were of interest to his committee’s investigations. He has shied away from most White House contact since that meeting in 2017 to avoid more appearances of conflict of interest.
When the Mueller report was released, Burr’s credibility took a hit within his committee, which had avoided most of the partisan fighting that sent a parallel House investigation up in flames. “Given evidence from the Mueller report, the committee must take steps to ensure its investigations do not leak to the executive branch,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said when the Mueller report was released.
Is Burr trying to make amends by agreeing to do something that would upset the president? Burr’s conservative critics, including some Republicans senators, have started asking, along with legal and national security experts like Ryan Goodman, a former Defense Department special counsel now at New York University.
(It’s also worth noting that Burr is not running for reelection in three years, so he has more freedom than the average Republican senator to confront Trump. Other Democrats on the committee told Demirjian they’re okay letting bygones be bygones for the sake of the investigation and that to date and that they trust Burr’s leadership. )
Burr isn’t the only Republican senator who is suddenly seen differently because of the Mueller report’s revelations.
Mueller spends several pages on how a then-aide for Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) was trying to find the emails that Hillary Clinton scrubbed from her private server — you know, the ones candidate Donald Trump asked Russians to find. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, started asking around for people to try to find them. That’s when he came upon Barbara Leeden, a Grassley aide who had already gone on an operation of her own to search for them, according to the Mueller report.
Mueller writes that Ledeen began her efforts to obtain the Clinton emails before Flynn’s request, as early as December 2015. She claimed she found thousands of emails from the “dark web,” though they never materialized.
After the Mueller report came out, Grassley played down her involvement in his office, according to the Sioux City Journal: “We found out about it late in 2016, and as far as I know she was working on her own time,” Grassley said. “She was a part-time employee working with our staff of people that do nominations.”
Then there’s Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). He is not in the Mueller report. But his election is wrapped up in it. Scott successfully unseated Democratic senator Bill Nelson in 2018. During that closely fought campaign, Nelson at the time warned that he had classified information that Russians might have hacked into Florida’s election system. As The Washington Post’s Fact Checker pointed out at the time, Nelson kept repeating this claim without evidence, as federal election officials were denying Russians hacked Florida.
But the Mueller report said the FBI believed Russians successfully “gain[ed] access to the network of at least one Florida county government.”
There is no evidence that Russian hackers changed any votes, but Nelson’s backers at the liberal Daily Kos blog point out that Nelson lost by 0.1 percent. In an election as close as that, there are always going to be questions about what tipped it to the winner, and allegations about Russian hacking is like rocket fuel.
And, finally, there is McConnell. The Senate majority leader had been insistent throughout Mueller’s investigation that there was no need to pass a bill protecting Mueller from being fired. “This is a piece of legislation that’s not necessary, in my judgment,” McConnell said, even after the New York Times reported Trump tried to get his aides to fire Mueller and then lie about it. But McConnell refused to bring up a bill supported by Republican senators, offering vague assurances from the White House that Mueller’s job was safe.
It turns out the very opposite was true. According to testimony from Trump’s former White House counsel, Donald McGahn, Trump twice spoke to McGahn about “knocking out Mueller,” which he took as an order to get Mueller fired.
McConnell took a risk, I wrote last year, by not protecting Mueller even as it seemed clear Trump desperately wanted to fire the special counsel. Technically, the risk paid off. But, thanks to the Mueller report, we know now just how risky this was.
The Mueller report is complicating the lives of all these senators.