Publication of the Mueller report has unleashed a wave of Republican animus against Congress’s Democratic-led investigations, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday admonished for “endlessly re-litigating” matters that should be closed. In this hyper-charged political climate, the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation has been the only congressional probe to escape such scrutiny — and both Republicans and Democrats on the panel say they want to keep it that way until they issue their final conclusions.
Burr and the committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), have managed to shield their panel’s work from much of the partisan pressure that splintered other probes undertaken by lawmakers since President Trump’s election. In the process, they collected what several members and aides described as a “mountain” of evidence exposing the degree to which Russia exploited social media and weaknesses in U..S. election systems.
Burr and Warner each said they believe that will be the panel’s main contribution to the public record. This week, the panel sent its election security findings to the intelligence community for review, meaning public disclosure has moved a step closer.
The two leaders also believe their work will result in Congress passing legislation to improve election security. But to achieve that, the committee must hold together while tackling its most politically divisive questions.
“From election security to the social media to reconfirming the findings of the [intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s activity], to some of the appropriate policy response of the Obama administration, we’ve been united,” Warner said in an interview. “On this last question of conspiracy, collusion, collaboration, whatever you want to call it, we’ll see.”
While the intelligence committee’s bipartisan approach has been lauded as a model, the panel had to overcome Burr’s early lack of interest in investigating the president’s alleged ties to Russia; the month after Trump’s inauguration, Burr shocked his peers by joining then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to tamp down reports that Trump campaign aides had contacts with Russian assets.
Burr apologized to his panel colleagues at the time, and he explains the episode today as something he did at the request of then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who he said told him, “this is a false story and somebody needs to knock it down.” Burr acknowledged that he “showed bad judgment by being a spokesperson to a communications director at the White House.”
Comey did not respond to a request for comment submitted through a spokesman.
The special counsel’s report also suggests that in March 2017, Burr relayed to then-White House counsel Donald McGahn the FBI’s targets in its counterintelligence probe of Trump’s campaign. Burr said Tuesday that he was not referencing FBI targets, but people of interest to his own committee’s probe, and that the conversation was a planning meeting meant to prevail upon McGahn to “inventory” all of the White House employees who might have had contacts with the Russians and “have them voluntarily contact us.” Any names of FBI targets he might have mentioned, Burr said, were already in the public record — with the exception of George Papadopoulos, who Burr says he “screwed up on” because he “believed at that time that George Papadopoulos was a public name.”
Privately, Democrats say that had they known about the substance of the exchange at the time, it might have killed trust before the probe ever got off the ground. But at this point, several Democrats stressed, it is more far important to preserve their partnership with Burr than to harangue him over past foibles.
Since the spring of 2017, Burr has shunned almost all contact with the White House, breaking that stance to appear with Trump at a September event for hurricane relief in North Carolina. He was also photographed at the White House for a NASCAR event last year. Meanwhile, Warner has made a point of courting Burr as a working partner and defending him against political criticism.
It hasn’t always been a smooth course, nor do panel leaders see eye to eye on what work is left to be done. Democrats have complained that Burr was slow to add staff and call witnesses, while Burr has defended his decision not to bring on prosecutors and insist that the panel’s inquiries be “driven by facts.” According to Democrats, Burr has consented to calling about 75 to 80 percent of the people they wanted to interview.
Democrats would also still like to look into whether Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were truthful in their testimony about a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer and a business associate’s collaboration with a Russian banker to revamp U.S.-Russia relations. But Burr said Tuesday that since Mueller had access to the committee’s transcripts, he assumed the special counsel determined any apparent discrepancies “weren’t criminal or they weren’t chargeable.”
Burr did suggest that the panel’s report ought to address how Hillary Clinton’s campaign helped fund a dossier detailing Trump’s alleged Russia ties — something that could raise objections from Democrats, who will probably want to come down harder on the Trump campaign’s actions than Republicans will.
To date, the committee has made no decisions that weren’t unanimous or based on consensus — a record that both sides credit to the fact that staffers, not members, have driven the panel’s probe. But in the home stretch, keeping that reputation will be up to its leaders, for whom less may be more. Burr is wary of giving the impression “that either Mark or I had our finger on the scale, trying to tilt it one way or the other,” he said.
“We are there to present the landscape to the American people and say, come to your own conclusion.”