Who is Richard Burr, Really? Why the public can’t trust his voice in the Russia probe

On the same day that Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) officially joined the Trump campaign as a senior national security advisor, the U.S. intelligence community released a statement that the Kremlin was trying to interfere in the election. But the Senator already knew those facts, and much more. Burr had been fully briefed in secret by the U.S. intelligence community a few weeks earlier. Senior U.S. officials told Burr that Russia’s interference was designed to support Donald Trump’s electoral chances. Burr decided to team up with the Trump campaign anyway, and hitch his own electoral fate in North Carolina to Trump’s political fortunes.

More than two years later, Burr now leads the Senate’s flagship investigation into whether fellow members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia’s efforts. As the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr’s work with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on the investigation is heading toward its final stage. The committee is expected to issue its major findings in the coming months.

Burr has received remarkably favorable press coverage for his stewardship of the investigation. Many mainstream commentators have heralded his committee as a bipartisan effort to follow the facts and tell the American public what it finds. Closer observation, however, raises serious questions whether that’s how this chapter in the 2016 election saga will end.

What’s largely escaped scrutiny is the case of Burr’s own words and deeds during the 2016 campaign. It was impossible to put the pieces together back then. We now have a much clearer picture due to news reports, court filings by the special counsel, and congressional testimony by former administration officials. We have learned a lot about what Russia was doing, what the U.S. intelligence community knew, and what Burr was told. The picture that emerges is neither favorable for Burr personally, nor for what truths Americans can expect to receive from his stewardship of the committee in the months ahead.  

Richard Burr and the 2016 presidential election

It’s a remarkable feat that Burr has held the position of overseeing the Senate’s Russia investigation given what was known at the time he assumed the role. It was well understood that Burr did not remain on the sidelines during the 2016 presidential election. As chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr was a major catch for the Trump campaign when he joined as senior national security advisor on Oct. 7, 2016.

In a race for his own reelection at the time, Burr also tied himself closely to Trump. When the Access Hollywood tapes broke, by happenstance on the same day that Burr joined the campaign, many Republicans took it as an opportunity to flee Trump. Burr instead embraced the beleaguered candidate and said that Trump had sufficiently apologized. Burr brushed off any criticisms of his closeness to Trump in the ensuing weeks. At his own campaign rally in Gastonia, North Carolina in late October, Burr told the crowd, “There’s not a separation between me and Donald Trump.”

With these facts alone, Burr might have been compelled to recuse himself from overseeing any Russia investigation if he had taken a position in the administration. Fellow traveler Jeff Sessions found himself barred from overseeing the Russia investigation as Attorney General due to his own participation in the campaign’s national security group. Department of Justice regulations state that no employee can be involved in an investigation if he or she had a “political relationship” with an organization that’s “substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation,” which the regulations go on to specify includes a “close identification with … a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser.”

While Sessions’ hands were tied, Burr’s hands in the Senate were free. Burr’s control over the investigation would be decided essentially by his own conscience and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s discretion.

Burr gets read into intelligence on Russia’s efforts to help Trump

When Burr assumed the lead of the Russia investigation, it was not widely known that there was something entirely unique about his role on the Trump campaign. Unlike any of the other senior advisers who joined the campaign, when Burr signed up, he was privy to the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Russian President Vladimir Putin was engaged in an effort to interfere in the election in support of Trump.

Since January 2015, Burr had been a member of the Gang of Eight—a group that consists of the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House and top Republicans and Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees. The U.S. intelligence community is able to share the nation’s most sensitive secrets with this small group without anyone else outside the administration knowing.

As far back as summer 2015, the U.S. intelligence community reportedly informed the Gang of Eight that Russia’s intelligence agencies were engaged in a hacking operation against the Democratic National Committee (DNC). That was many months before the DNC was aware of the breach, and months before the FBI reached out to the DNC to inform the organization.

In July 2016, when Trump called on “Russia, if you’re listening” to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, several Republican leaders directly and indirectly criticized him. A spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican member of the Gang of Eight, said, “Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug. Putin should stay out of this election.”

Senator Burr’s office, however, appeared to deflect attention away from Russia. A spokeswoman for Burr told Politico,“Burr has said for ‘some time that foreign adversaries are intent on gaining unauthorized access into our country’s government and private networks to access sensitive data.’” Politico noted that instead of talking about Trump’s statement, Burr’s spokeswoman “mostly focused on the FBI investigation of the recent hacking attack on the Democratic National Committee’s email servers,” telling the news outlet that “’public discussion about attribution … are premature, at best.’”

By that point, however, not only did Burr know that the intelligence community had attributed the DNC hack to Russia, but the U.S. intelligence agencies even knew in summer 2015 the specific unit and agents within Russia’s intelligence services who performed the hacking. Among other specific data, Dutch intelligence agencies had for months reportedly accessed security cameras in the hackers’ Moscow offices and handed that information over to their American counterparts.

As the U.S. presidential campaign headed into the general elections, the U.S. intelligence community gained a more comprehensive view of the Kremlin’s actions and intentions. Increasingly concerned by what they saw, senior U.S. intelligence officials updated the small group of congressional leaders.

From Aug. 11 to Sept. 6, 2016, the C.I.A. organized “a series of urgent, individual briefings for [the] eight top members of Congress.” The C.I.A. informed Burr and the others that the U.S. intelligence community had discovered the Kremlin was working to help elect Trump and that “unnamed advisers to Mr. Trump might be working with the Russians.”

With this information in hand, Burr decided not only to join the Trump campaign and tie his political fate to Trump. Burr also took the now difficult-to-explain step of publicly repudiating suggestions that the Russians were acting in support of Trump. In an Oct. 3, 2016 interview, Burr said, “I have yet to see anything that would lead me to believe” Russia was interfering to benefit Trump. It was also a notable exception to Burr’s reputation for avoiding speaking with the press.

Most important, we now know that what Burr said in the interview was inconsistent with what the C.I.A had told him. Former C.I.A. Director John Brennan would later testify before Congress that he had kept Burr and the others in the Gang of Eight fully informed.

“The full details of what we knew at the time was shared only with these members of Congress,” Brennan said. “The substance of those briefings was entirely consistent with the main judgments contained in the January classified and unclassified assessments—namely, that Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency, and help President Trump’s election chances.”

In summer 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies were also tracking an additional threat from Russia, this one directed against the voting systems of different states. Again, Burr made public statements that were at odds with what he had been told by the U.S. intelligence community. In his Oct. 3 interview with Foreign Policy, the news organization wrote that “Burr said ‘actual manipulation of the vote can’t happen’ because the DHS has assured lawmakers that no U.S. ballot machines are connected to the internet.” (Foreign Policy also noted the discrepancy between Burr’s statement and the New York Times reporting days later that DHS was actively trying to protect states’ online voting systems against cyber threats.)

What’s worse, we now know that DHS and the intelligence agencies secretly briefed Burr the previous month about their grave concerns of Russian threats to state voting systems. In early September 2016, President Obama had dispatched three senior U.S. officials including DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco, and FBI Director James Comey to brief the “Gang of Twelve,” a group that includes the Gang of Eight plus the chairs and ranking members of the committees on homeland security.

The White House wanted the congressional leaders to agree to “a bipartisan statement urging state and local officials to take federal help in protecting their voting-registration and balloting machines from Russian cyber-intrusions,” the Washington Post reported. McConnell nixed the idea and remained steadfast despite Paul Ryan’s effort to persuade the Senate Majority Leader to change his mind.

Yet even McConnell’s stance—declining to issue a joint public statement—was far shy of Burr’s tack of making public statements inconsistent with the intelligence information.

Over the course of September, other members of the Gang of Twelve publicly referred, in broad terms, to what they had been told in the intelligence briefings. Burr then cast doubt on their presentation of the facts.

On Sept 9, in a move perceived to break with Trump, Speaker Ryan called Putin an “aggressor,” and said, “It certainly appears that he is conducting state-sponsored cyberattacks on what appears to be our political system.”

On Sept. 14, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told CNN: “I have been briefed at a very high-level classified briefing on these Russian allegations. They are very disturbing. The idea of a foreign power, particular one like Russia, a foreign adversary, attempting to mess with our elections — and Director Comey basically told us that the motivation was to undermine the integrity of the American political electoral process.”

The following week, the ranking member of Burr’s committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her counterpart on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), issued a statement saying, “Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election.”

Burr’s reaction? Like his spokeswoman’s statement that summer, he deflected attention away from Russia. He said that his fellow congressional members’ warnings were “probably incorrect,” and that “they give the impression there’s one cyber-problem in the world: Russia and the elections, and that’s a huge understatement.” It is not clear specifically which of his congressional colleagues’ warnings Burr was referencing at the time.

The Oct. 7 U.S. Intelligence Community Statement

Burr had a new choice to make once the U.S. intelligence community released its Oct. 7 statement, which came four days after his interview with Foreign Policy. Most chilling were the first two sentences of the three-paragraph statement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Homeland Security Secretary Johnson:

The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like … WikiLeaks … are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.

Burr would later act like those sentences did not exist. It was a head-turning moment in a nationally-televised debate for the North Carolina Senate seat.

Prior to his debate, Burr was hemmed in by Trump’s statements attempting to contradict the intelligence community. Two days after the Clapper-Johnson statement, Trump said in a Sunday night presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, “She doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia.”

Politico published a roundup of Republicans repudiating Trump on this issue, noting that Burr issued a “brief statement” deferring to the intelligence community’s release, stating: “I believe it sufficiently covers what we believe to be the case at this time.” Burr’s statement was non-specific. He would be given an opportunity to clarify in the next few days.

That Wednesday night, Burr faced off against his opponent.

The moment came when the debate moderator, ABC’s Jonathan Karl, asked Burr point blank whether he chose to believe President Trump or the U.S. intelligence community. Burr first appeared to stand behind the administration’s statement but wasn’t specific. Karl followed up, and Burr stammered. In a meandering answer, he said, “It’s not limited to [Russia]. It’s Iran, it’s North Korea, it’s China.” Burr also said he doubted Karl’s sources.

After a commercial break, Karl made more explicit that his source was the Clapper-Johnson statement and read the first line of the statement verbatim. Burr replied, “I don’t think that really had anything to do with the e-mails or the political parties,” and added “I’m not sure that the reports that you read are from official sources.” Karl was exasperated. “Okay, uh, it was a joint statement from the Director of National Intelligence and the intelligence community. Let’s move on to the next question.” (It’s worth watching the 7 minutes in full.)

The media was perplexed. Politico reported the next morning under the sub-heading, “Burr All Over the Place on Hacks.” The Washington Post summarized the exchange saying, “Burr appeared unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge Clapper’s statement and dodged when pressed on the issue.”

‘History has its eyes on you’: Chairing the Senate’s Russia Investigation

When Burr, as a member of the House of Representatives, ran for the Senate in 2004, there was a historical significance to his race that was not lost on the candidate. North Carolina’s congressman was the 12th cousin of Aaron Burr, the man who had killed Alexander Hamilton and stood trial for treason for a plot to take military control over American territory. Aaron Burr’s stain on American history was likely part of the reason it took nearly 200 years before a Burr returned to Congress. Richard Burr had accomplished that feat in 1994 as part of the so-called Newt Gingrich Revolution.

Ten years later, he was aiming to become the first Burr to win a Senate seat since Aaron Burr represented the state of New York.

Richard Burr’s family expressed pride in their connection to the nation’s third Vice President. His father had served as the president of the Aaron Burr Association in the late 1970s. In 2004, the National Review asked Congressman Burr whether he was proud of his tie to Aaron Burr. “Yes, I am,” Burr replied, “though history has proved to shine a different light on him, because of the treasonous acts.” He was reflective, and sounded conflicted.

After the 2016 election returned Burr to the Senate, he found himself with the historically significant role of chairing the investigation into whether the President of the United States and members of his campaign helped Russia interfere in the 2016 election. Warner, for his part, remarked that the investigation “may very well be the most important thing I do in my public life.” Freed of the pressures of the election season, the question would become how Burr would run the investigation.

Over the past two years, the Senate Intelligence Committee has produced reports in a bipartisan fashion that contrasts sharply with all other congressional investigations into Russian election interference to date. One report found that Russian government operatives “conducted an unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign against state election infrastructure” during the presidential election. Another report confirmed the findings of the intelligence community that Russia had interfered in the election in support of Trump.

Given what Burr had said in 2016, these fully bipartisan reports were even more significant than many realized. That said, the overwhelming evidence in support of the reports’ findings appeared to offer no alternative for a reasonable decision-maker.

What has been alarming to close observers is a series of decision points in the course of the Russia investigation, most especially on the question of collusion, that bring Burr’s impartiality into doubt.

Here are 10 data points to consider:

1. Burr tried to kill the collusion inquiry from the start.

Burr announced that the committee would exclude possible collusion from the scope of the investigation, a move he made with no advance notice to Ranking Member Warner.

2. Burr reversed under pressure.

Burr reportedly backed down only after Democrats threatened to boycott the investigation if the question of collusion was not included as a topic.

3. Caught in the act — working secretly on behalf of the White House.

The Washington Post revealed that the White House secretly enlisted House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes and Burr to reach out to news organizations to challenge the New York Times’ reporting on contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians. The Post notably wrote, “Unlike the others, Nunes spoke on the record.” That was better than what Burr had done. (Also of note, CNN and Reuters independently confirmed the New York Times’ reporting.)

Burr’s conduct was criticized by both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Burr had been put “on notice,” and that Burr’s conduct “certainly gives the appearance, if not the reality, of a lack of impartiality.” Warner said he had “grave concerns” about Burr’s conduct. Republican Senators Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), both members of the intelligence committee, also issued critical statements.

4. Credit where credit is not due.

Burr has been credited with not appearing at functions with President Trump and limiting any trips to the White House, but he took this step only after being chastened by the Post report on his and Nunes’ conduct.

5. A painfully slow start. No subpoenas and lack of requests for evidence.

In April 2017, Michael Isikoff reported, “The committee has yet to issue a single subpoena for documents or interview any key witnesses who are central… It also hasn’t requested potentially crucial evidence — such as the emails, memos and phone records of the Trump campaign — in part because the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has so far failed to respond to requests from the panel’s Democrats to sign letters doing so, the sources said.”

6. Understaffed.

“The [Senate Intelligence Committee] investigation does not have a single staffer dedicated to it full-time, and those staff members working on it part-time do not have significant investigative experience,” the Daily Beast reported in April 2017. In a Feb. 2019 interview, Burr defended never hiring outside full-time professional investigators. Outside investigators, he said, “would’ve never had access to some of the documents that we were able to access from the intelligence community.” But it’s unclear why the committee could not use outside professional investigators or attorneys who have the required security clearances.

7. Statement on assessing the success of Russian interference.

In a widely watched November 2017 hearing, Burr used his opening remarks to claim that Russian influence operations could not be shown to have affected the election, and that a contrary view was biased. Burr said: “I want to use this forum to push back on some narratives that have sprung up around the subject. A lot of folks, including many in the media, have tried to reduce this entire conversation to one premise; foreign actors conducted a surgical, executed covert operation to help elect a United States president. I’m here to tell you this story does not simplify that easily.”

Burr continued, “What we cannot do … is calculate the impact that foreign meddling had on this election. It’s human nature to make the complex manageable and determine things that fit your conclusions. That’s bias.”

8. Encouraging Trump’s attempts to discredit former senior intelligence officials.

When President Trump decided to revoke the security clearances of former senior intelligence officials, Burr quickly and strongly supported the president. (Notably, Burr issued a statement saying a New York Times op-ed that John Brennan wrote justified the President’s revoking the former CIA Director’s clearances. This was unusual reasoning since Brennan wrote the op-ed following the President’s deciding to revoke Brennan’s clearances.)

9. Vetoing public hearings.

Burr categorically rejects any public hearings with Trump campaign associates, despite Warner’s requests and despite the fact that the committee has held several public hearings, including on Russia’s manipulation of social media platforms.

10. Defying his own rules on speaking to the press about the committee’s work.

Burr has now repeatedly told media outlets that he has seen no evidence of collusion. The first occasion was in an Associated Press interview in September 2018. In the same article, the Associated Press reported that Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)“says Burr started every meeting at the beginning of the probe by asking senators not to talk to the media ‘until we get additional facts and we put things out together.’” In 2014, Burr said, “I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly.”

* * *

With months still to go in the committee’s investigation, Burr has recently made headlines in claiming that he has seen no “hard evidence” or “factual evidence” of collusion. Yet, he also seems to acknowledge that reasonable minds on the committee may well consider the facts do amount to evidence of collusion.

Burr’s conduct during the 2016 campaign, however, haunt his words today. What stands out most of all is Burr’s statement in the Oct. 3, 2016 interview that he had “yet to see anything that would lead me to believe” Russia was interfering to benefit Trump—when that’s exactly what he was seeing in highly classified intelligence briefings at the time. That was no stray statement either. Burr’s spokeswoman’s July 2016 statement that “public discussion about attribution” of the DNC hack was “premature,” along with Burr’s troubling Senate debate performance are additional reminders of how Burr has previously characterized intelligence information for the American public.

The true character and public understanding of  Senator Richard Burr will be tested in the months ahead. Then history will be left to judge.

Photo: Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) listens to ranking member Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) question officials from the intelligence community during a hearing on February 13, 2018 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.