North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is not well-known. That’s by design. He doesn’t go on talk shows, write op-eds, or give interviews unless reporters surround him as he leaves a hearing. Then the former Wake Forest football player, who doesn’t wear socks and drives a 1973 Volkswagen covered in his colleagues’ bumper stickers, will say what’s on his mind.
That was different from what most Republicans were doing Tuesday after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. While others were saying, “Nothing to see here,” Burr said he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Comey’s termination” and lamented the “loss” of a “public servant of the highest order.”
It’s not so much but in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke in the chamber Tuesday morning and said to toe the Trump line, most did.
For Burr to speak up despite those instructions to keep quiet is in keeping with who he is, according to his colleagues—candid, deliberate, and wanting to do the right thing, even if it’s in his slow, genteel way. He’s the opposite of his House counterpart, Rep. Devon Nunes, who crept into the White House in everything but a Groucho Marx disguise to emerge with putative “incriminating” documents that proved nothing about the surveillance Trump insisted Obama placed on him. It did, however, say a lot about Nunes, who’s now at war with the Democrats on his committee. Burr and Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat, share information. They get along well.
Burr may not turn out to be a latter-day Barry Goldwater who marched into the Oval Office to tell President Richard Nixon he should go gently onto Marine One for early retirement in California. Unlike Burr and a handful of others, many Republicans are too partisan to put country over party. They don’t respect or admire the incoherent, impulsive, autocratic Trump, who squanders credibility the way he squandered other people’s money as a businessman, but they can’t get off the horse they’re riding. It’s the agenda, stupid.
As holes in Trump’s story grew to the size of the Grand Canyon, the president had to come clean in an interview with NBC anchor Lester Holt that it was he, and not Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wanted to fire that “showboat, grandstander” Comey. Burr then contradicted Trump anew, calling Comey one of the most “ethical, upright, straightforward individuals I’ve had the opportunity to work with.” He’s invited Comey to come to the committee and give his side of the story.
Burr was elected in 2004 to the seat left vacant by John Edwards and beat the Tar Heel curse by being reelected twice. He’s a no renegade like Sen. John McCain or Lindsey Graham. He’s a standard conservative who rarely breaks ranks—although he did so memorably when he went against sentiment in his home state and voted to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Those who work with him say he’s guided by a small-town sense of justice.
He threatened to subpoena Trump campaign aides who didn’t respond to requests for documents. When Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, among others didn’t turn those documents over, he indeed subpoenaed them. A grand jury has been empanelled in Maryland.
Cynics say Burr is grandstanding himself: He doesn’t have to worry about reelection, having previously announced that he wouldn’t be running for a fourth term. He wants to show that a special prosecutor isn’t necessary. If one were appointed, Burr loses his chance to make history.
But there are reasons to believe he may do the right thing for the sake of it. He’s said and done more than he needs to, at the risk of eating alone in the Senate Dining Room.
Burr was an early and steadfast supporter of Trump during the campaign. But unlike Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he stayed his own man. In the senator’s invitation to the now-former FBI director to appear before the committee, Burr is providing Comey with a forum to respond to Trump’s claim that the FBI director personally told him, three times no less, that he wasn’t under investigation—a claim Trump blithely expanded on in Thursday’s Holt interview. That’s utterly inappropriate, and highly questionable that it took place, as Trump claims, at a dinner Comey requested at which, to boot, Trump says the lawman pleaded for his job.
Trump let his press secretary go out with a version of events that simply didn’t happen. We all know Trump’s watches press briefings, and reviews the performance of those briefers. Assistant press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said to be trying out for Sean Spicer’s job, insisted that Trump, in firing Comey, was just following the advice of his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, hours before Trump himself told NBC, nah, this was all me.
I’m told that Rosenstein himself today told Senate intelligence committee leaders that he had not advised Trump to fire Comey. Maybe that’s why Trump copped to Holt that it was him alone.
A lifetime ago, on Monday, another fired law enforcement official, Sally Yates, testified that when she went to the White House to say Gen. Flynn had lied about his contacts with Russian officials, White House counsel Don McGahn asked her, “What does it matter to the Department of Justice if one White House official lies to another?” That’s what Burr is dealing with.
It’s not just a press secretary being exposed by Trump. It’s the vice president. History repeats itself. Flynn was fired for lying to Pence, who then proceeded to defend him. Trump has now done the same thing to Pence, who went out and called Comey’s firing a decisive act of leadership hours before his boss made plain it was a purposeful piece of prevarication.
Pence should take a page from Burr and find his spine. The two could sit together at lunch. They might not be alone for long.