WASHINGTON — Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr’s White House–sanctioned efforts to steer reporters away from stories about the Trump campaign’s alleged connections with Russia have pulled his committee’s already-delicate investigation on the subject onto even more tenuous footing.
The Washington Post reported last Friday that the White House had recruited Burr to help strike down reporting on the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Burr told the Post he had those conversations at the behest of the White House, drawing near immediate accusations that Burr was no longer suited to lead the Intelligence Committee’s investigation. It was a moment that echoed Bill Clinton’s tarmac encounter with Attorney General Loretta Lynch last year — a meeting that forced her to recuse herself from the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails and that some Democrats think allowed that FBI investigation to spiral out of political control.
By Monday afternoon, all of the major parties involved in the debate in Congress — House Intelligence Committee Democrats, House Intelligence Committee Republicans, and Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats — had spoken publicly about the matter. Absent from the public discourse was Burr, one of the incident’s most consequential parties, sitting at the helm of the Senate probe into Moscow’s election meddling.
Asked by BuzzFeed News to speak publicly about the phone call and why he participated, Burr declined.
On Monday, committee staff and members scrambled to somehow save the credibility of the sweeping investigation, though none seemed sure on how, exactly, to do so. Though committee vice chair Mark Warner’s office declined on Monday morning to say whether he had spoken with Burr about the phone call, by Monday afternoon, it did not appear that the two had been in touch since Warner’s initial statement was issued this weekend.
“I have called Director Pompeo and Chairman Burr to express my grave concerns about what this means for the independence of this investigation and a bipartisan commitment to follow the facts, and to reinforce that I will not accept any process that is undermined by political interference,” Warner said at the time.
In a pre-scheduled interview with local North Carolina cable station, Time Warner Channel 14, on Monday night, Burr defended the phone call, saying, “I didn’t do anything that jeopardized or compromised in any way the integrity of the investigation.”
The conversation, he said, regarded a New York Times story that said a US government entity had records of phone calls between Trump campaign surrogates and Russian intelligence operatives. Burr said he relayed to reporters that, through his own inquiries to government agencies, those phone records did not exist.
“I simply had two conversations with two different media outlets on one specific thing,” he said.
“I didn’t do anything inappropriate or in any way compromise the integrity of the investigation.”
Despite their tangible outrage last week over the illicit phone call, committee Democrats maintained Monday that they have confidence in the investigation, if not Burr personally. One Senate aide said panel Democrats probably wouldn’t be so amenable had the staff-led investigation not been proceeding smoothly.
“I have confidence in the committee staff,” one US official said, when asked if they had confidence in Burr. “There are people on both sides strictly interested in seeing where the facts take us.”
Quietly, the incident has exposed the vulnerable political underbelly of the Intelligence Committee. Traditionally keeping to the shadows and relatively bipartisan, the panel has seldom been served well by the politicking of its members, from either side of the aisle — in more recent memory, relations between committee Democrats and Republicans soured to a prolonged low point over the committee’s torture report, which some Republicans tried to keep from being publicly released. Nearly three years since, committee relations appeared to be balancing again.
But those partisan tempers have been brutally yanked to the surface by the Russia probe, and, more specifically, by Burr’s admitted phone liaison with reporters on behalf of the administration. Committee Republicans — including Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton — are delicately distancing themselves from the call. Cotton told Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that, had he been contacted by the White House with a similar request, he likely wouldn’t have obliged. Democrats, meanwhile, issued blistering statements following reports of Burr’s phone call last week.
Intelligence Committee Democrats met on Monday night absent their Republican colleagues for what was said to be a pre-scheduled meeting, unrelated to the phone call incident, though the subject was expected to come up.
After a prolonged start to the probe, due largely to bureaucratic jostling between the intelligence community and the Congressional committee, staffers from both Republican and Democratic offices began examining documents in January, and several officials told BuzzFeed News the investigation is moving forward in a relatively productive, bipartisan fashion.