Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) struggled to explain why he could independently lead the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
So Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.) interjected, placing his left hand on Burr’s shoulder and launching into a stirring defense of the Intelligence Committee chairman. “We, together with the members of the committee, are going to get to the bottom of this,” Warner, the ranking Democrat on the panel, told a packed room of reporters.
Warner expressed his full “confidence” in Burr the day before their panel was to resume public hearings Thursday.
“If you get nothing else from today, take that statement to the bank,” he said of an investigation that is likely to define their political careers.
For nearly 40 minutes Wednesday, Burr and Warner put on the sort of bipartisan display that used to be common on Capitol Hill, particularly in the oversight of the nation’s intelligence community.
But starting last decade, during probes of the intelligence leading up to the Iraq War and the methods used during interrogations of enemy combatants, the intelligence committees began to fray along partisan lines.
That bipartisan tradition has been tested more than ever amid revelations of Russia’s role in trying to disrupt the 2016 campaign to benefit Donald Trump. The House Intelligence Committee has unraveled as its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has come under fire for having an unplanned classified briefing on White House grounds and refusing to share his information with panel members.
Burr and Warner set out to send the exact opposite message in previewing their own investigation. Ostensibly explaining the scope of their inquiry, their more important challenge was to show that there would be an adult, bipartisan review of what happened last year.
They stood shoulder to shoulder, so they were always in the frame together. Burr began by declaring that he would not answer any questions about the House probe, an indirect way of dismissing that partisan effort.
He promised that the single biggest question his panel would try to answer was what, if any, knowledge Trump had of the Russian plot.
“We know that our challenge is to answer that question for the American people,” he said.
If successful, Burr and Warner will have overcome the odds in this partisan era. That they even have a chance is based largely on a personal relationship that is rare in today’s Senate.
Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Burr grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., the son of a minister. He played football at Wake Forest University and then spent 17 years selling lawn equipment before winning a House seat in 1994. Warner grew up in Connecticut, was valedictorian at George Washington University and went to work on Capitol Hill. He spun off his expertise in telecommunications to become a cellphone chief executive worth $200 million or more.
They came together in the Senate through their mutual friendship with former senator Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee before Burr. Chambliss served with Burr in the House before they were elected to the Senate, forming a rat pack with future House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Warner became friends with Chambliss through their shared hatred of the Treasury’s debt. They led a long effort to craft a $2 trillion plan of slashed spending and increased taxes, the sort of plan that aggravated both parties’ leadership.
It went nowhere — but it created a real bond.
Drawn into Chambliss’s circle, Warner befriended Burr. The multimillionaire regularly ribs Burr for wearing Kirkland Signature shirts purchased at Costco, and they sometimes travel together. Last March, Burr and Warner were leading a delegation through Europe when terrorists struck in Brussels.
In 2014, as Burr gave generously to other Republican candidates, he declined to donate any money from his political action committee to Republican Ed Gillespie in his campaign against Warner. In 2016, Warner returned the favor, declining to donate to Burr’s opponent.
Both those campaigns irritated their respective party leaders because of their retro approach to politics. Democrats thought Warner spent too much time courting rural voters who had become conservatives, while Republicans disparaged Burr’s slow-starting campaign as he thought voters didn’t pay attention until the final months.
With their narrow victories, each came away feeling vindicated — and also with a sense of freedom from leadership.
Then history threw them together through random acts of more senior senators.
After the 2016 election, Warner expected to take over the Rules Committee, overseeing trivial matters. Instead, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) jumped to top spot on the Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) left her perch on the intelligence panel to claim Leahy’s place on the Judiciary Committee.
Now, instead of doling out office space through the Rules Committee, Warner is serving as Burr’s wing man on the Intelligence Committee, co-leading the most politically charged congressional investigation in at least 30 years.
“When we started this, we saw the scope and what was involved. I said it was the most important thing I’d ever taken on in my public life,” he said Wednesday.
But senior senators in both parties, as the revelations mounted in December and January, tried to steal the investigation away from the Intelligence Committee, believing that its secretive practices provided the wrong platform for reassuring the public.
There were also whispers of doubt about the panel’s leaders.
Together, Burr and Warner plowed ahead. They have seven full-time investigators handling the inquiry and have set out to interview 20 key witnesses, starting with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has played a key advisory role in the campaign and the West Wing.
With the House investigation stalled amid partisan rancor, Burr and Warner now have the chance to unravel the Russia mystery and demonstrate that bipartisanship can happen in this era.
“The committee will go wherever the intelligence leads us,” Burr said.
“We’re going to get it right,” Warner responded.