North Carolina

Burr’s Senate committee, finishing up Russia reports, now must deal with Ukraine issue

The House Intelligence Committee is moving quickly in its probe of President Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president and his request for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

It has subpoenaed administration officials and Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and set up a conversation with the whistleblower whose complaint set off the impeachment inquiry.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, led by North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, is taking a slower — don’t expect “light speed,” Burr said — and much less public approach. Burr said the committee’s staff will be extremely busy during the current recess.

It is the same approach — doing its work as far out of the spotlight and with as much bipartisan consensus as possible — that Burr’s committee has used throughout its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, an investigation that may reach three years.

“I’m very proud of the way the committee has worked,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the panel’s top Democrat, told McClatchy in an interview last week. “Now more than ever we need to maintain a bipartisan approach on this very important issue. (Burr’s) been a real leader on making sure we ferret out Russian intervention.”

Burr and Warner have maintained their relationship through more than two years of high-interest investigations, a sharp contrast to the fighting that has existed between the top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Reps. Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff. Each, during their respective chairmanships, has pursued investigations that have been seen as one-sided.

“That has been a productive relationship and one that has lent their committee a lot of credibility,” said Scott Anderson, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution and senior editor at Lawfare. “What we’ve seen, with relatively few exceptions, is a pretty professional and collaborative process. We’ve seen them try and release joint statements. We haven’t seen the bickering or targeted attacks we’ve seen between Nunes and Schiff.”

The committee’s deliberate approach has hardly kept up with the ever-spinning news cycle, but it may produce the definitive work on Russia’s 2016 election interference. Now, as the committee tries to finish its work on Russia, comes another potential scandal — and one that could lead to impeachment.

Ukraine inquiry

In its initial steps into the Ukraine inquiry, the Senate committee met with Acting Director of National Intelligence James Maguire and Intelligence Committee Inspector General Michael Atkinson on Thursday, witnesses Burr described as “extremely forthcoming.”

“This will generate more questions than we asked,” Burr told reporters after the session. “So we’ve started the process. Don’t expect us to move at light speed. That’ll probably happen in the House. But the committee is committed to making sure we get to the bottom of what questions need answered.”

The inquiry into Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president and its potential fallout is in its early stages.

The committee, which has 15 members (eight Republicans and seven Democrats), has served as a safe place for Republicans, in particular, to steer investigations during the Trump presidency. While bashing Democrats for their public comments about the Ukrainian case, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deferred to Burr’s committee.

“The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has long worked on a bipartisan basis, in secure settings, out of the public spotlight to conduct critically-important oversight of classified and sensitive matters,” he said on the Senate floor. “As with most matters before the Committee, I believe it is extremely important that their work be handled in a secure setting with adequate protections, in a bipartisan fashion, and based on facts rather than leaks to the press.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, said Burr is doing “great” and said he’d allow Burr’s committee to handle any investigation, including a potential one into Joe and Hunter Biden.

“That’s why I don’t want my committee to go down calling the Bidens,” Graham told McClatchy last week. “I don’t want to turn this whole thing into a circus ... Let Richard and these guys figure out what happened.”

Hunter Biden joined the board of a Ukrainian energy company in 2014, which was investigated for corruption.

Joe Biden, as vice president, and many other Western leaders pushed Ukraine to fire its prosecutor general in 2016 for not going after corruption enough, using $1 billion in loan guarantees as leverage to get the country to act. The prosecutor general, who took office in 2015, was ousted in February of 2016.

Trump has tried to draw a connection between the two, saying Joe Biden was working to shield his son from an investigation. Bloomberg reported that the investigation into the energy company was dormant.

Hunter Biden left the board earlier this year. Joe Biden is campaigning to be the Democrats’ 2020 presidential nominee.

Whistleblower process

Trump’s phone call is at the heart of a whistleblower complaint that alleges Trump “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” Trump held up U.S. aid to Ukraine for several months and, on the phone call, asked the country’s president to look into the Biden matter as well as origins of the 2016 Russian meddling claims.

The Senate committee could, instead of being drawn into the deeply political aspects of the Ukraine call, focus its attention on more long-term issues, such as how the intelligence community whistleblower process should be structured and handled and what the reporting guidelines should be, Anderson said.

“There’s an opportunity for them to produce things that are going to be genuinely useful in the future,” he said.

Burr, first elected to the U.S. House in the Republican wave of 1994, is in his third term in the Senate. A former Wake Forest football player, he announced last year that he would donate his congressional papers to the school — a clear sign that the 63-year-old Burr plans to make this his final term in the Senate, a promise he made during his 2016 re-election campaign.

He became chairman of the intelligence committee in 2015. And soon, just weeks after Trump was inaugurated, Burr was leading one of the biggest investigations in recent congressional history. It is still going.

“He’s tried to retain his own credibility and that’s a valuable thing,” Anderson said. “If nothing else, it says it’s someone who takes his institutional role seriously and leads him to consider his responsibilities and reason with the gravity that they deserve.”

Russia investigation reports

The committee released the first volume of its report on “Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election” in July. The 67-page report, which included some redactions, describes “Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure.”

The committee could release the next volume, focused on Russia’s use of social media, as soon as next week, though Burr has joked in the past about missing deadlines. In April, he said he hoped to release the report publicly in August.

The committee plans to release volumes on the intelligence community’s assessment, the Obama administration’s response and, finally, its final counterintelligence report.

“We’ll be judged at the end of this on the product that we produce,” Burr told CBS in a lengthy interview released in February. “We’ll also be judged on the process that we chose ... None of us ever anticipated that this would be two years.”

He told a group of reporters in Durham in April that he didn’t expect to find collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the final report, The News & Observer reported previously.

“Two people can read facts and possibly come to a different conclusion,” Burr said. “I think when we get through with our report, there won’t be any room for anybody to make these wild accusations about collusion.”

‘Always been straightforward’

Burr is typically tight-lipped about the committee’s actions. And that approach has mostly worked in keeping the committee out of the headlines. When it hasn’t, he’s largely been protected by committee members.

When the committee subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr., just days after the Mueller report’s release led Republicans and the president to claim victory, committee members defended Burr from an onslaught of sniping from various GOP factions, including other senators, congressmen and even Trump.

“Just trying to make sure everybody is asked all the questions they need to be asked before we do the final report,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who is on the committee.

Trump Jr. appeared before the committee in June.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said she has no issues with Burr’s leadership of the committee.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said he and Burr disagree on some aspects of the committee’s work, including how far to follow the money in the Russia investigation and the role of federal government in keeping elections secure. Wyden said he was the lone dissenting vote on the election security volume of the report, and said it should have called for mandatory, nationwide cybersecurity requirements.

“I’m very much in favor of a partnership with the states, but when you’re dealing with the Russians and super powers and military might and cyber-security muscle, I don’t think you send the county IT person in to take them on,” Wyden said.

“We have had several differences of opinion on policy issues, but he’s always been straightforward with me and that’s all I can ask for.”

Emma Dumain of McClatchy DC contributed to this report.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or