Author : MATT FLEGENHEIMER
Posted : MAY 13, 2017
WASHINGTON — The premonition came in a Winston-Salem conference room, on an otherwise happy election night in 2004, before Richard M. Burr of North Carolina had even declared victory in his bid to join the Senate.
News outlets had begun calling the race. A watch party was waiting for him. But his mind was elsewhere, at least for a moment.
“He said, ‘I hope they don’t put me on the Intelligence Committee,’” recalled Paul Shumaker, a top strategist for Mr. Burr who sat with him to follow the returns. “‘It’s hard enough to sleep at night the way it is.’”
Mr. Burr’s present sleep habits are unknown, particularly as he tiptoes at last toward criticism of a president he had generally praised — until the firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director.
This much is less ambiguous: Now the committee’s chairman as it investigates ties between President Trump’s associates and Russia, the unobtrusive Mr. Burr is shrugging into a spotlight he never expected and does not especially seem to relish.
The senator’s thorny position — a Republican lawmaker investigating the Republican president, whom he embraced last year on the campaign trail in his own re-election bid — has grown more trying by the day.
Mr. Burr, 61, has watched a fellow Republican, Representative Devin Nunes of California, fumble the House Intelligence Committee inquiry, raising the stakes for a Senate panel that many view as the only credible chance to hold the administration to account on Capitol Hill.
The senator has emerged, whether he likes it or not, as the lawmaker who might well be tasked with undermining not only a president he has supported vocally but the entire Republican Party in a period of unified rule, championing an inquiry that could consume what was supposed to be period of conservative policy feats. His supporters insist he is beholden to no one, noting his pledge last year never to seek office again after his re-election.
But at the same time, Mr. Burr’s independence was forcefully questioned after reports in February that he had spoken with the White House and engaged with news organizations to dispute potentially damaging articles about associates of Mr. Trump’s having contact with Russian intelligence operatives. Democrats have grumbled that Mr. Burr was slow-walking his investigation, calling for a special counsel to take up the case.
Then there was the small matter of Mr. Trump’s firing Mr. Comey on Tuesday, throwing the bureau’s own investigation into flux and further elevating the Senate review. On Friday, the Senate’s burden seemed to grow again after Mr. Trump suggested in a series of threat-laced early-morning Twitter posts that there may be secret tapes of Mr. Comey’s conversations with the president.
Mr. Burr, rarely emotive in his exchanges with reporters and generally reluctant to second-guess the administration, has not concealed his concerns in recent days.
“The timing of this and the reasoning for it doesn’t make sense to me,” he said the morning after the firing. He allowed that the circumstances had made the committee’s task “a little more difficult.”
On Thursday, with the chamber still consumed by the chaos surrounding Mr. Comey’s departure, Mr. Burr presided over a committee hearing. In the middle of it, he joined his Democratic vice chairman, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, for an unannounced meeting with Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general whose memo about Mr. Comey was initially cited by the White House as a rationale for the firing.
Throughout the day, in public and in private, Mr. Burr’s message was clear: The investigation continues.
“Same mission,” he said in a brief interview in the basement of the Senate. “We’re not changing course one bit.”
In his months on the national stage, Mr. Burr has perfected a steely camera stare, befitting a purveyor of important truths. But he has not always looked the part of a stoic investigator, perhaps by design.
Many lawmakers reach for unpretentiousness, no matter their bearing. Mr. Burr appears more committed to the bit than most, with a résumé to match.
Son of a minister. Defensive back on Wake Forest University’s football team. Appliance salesman out of school, ascending to national sales manager for Carswell Distributing, a lawn and gardening wholesaler.
Some things have changed. Much hasn’t.
Mr. Burr buys dress shirts at Costco. He goes without socks around the Capitol. He drives a moldering gray Volkswagen Thing convertible, known around Washington for its collage of political bumper stickers and unreliable roof.
“Isn’t that the ugliest thing on earth?” asked Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. “It’s an assault on the senses.”
Mr. Burr’s fellow North Carolina senator, Thom Tillis, had a more targeted complaint.
“He needs to get a roof on it if he’s going to ask me to ride in a snowstorm, which he has and I did,” Mr. Tillis said.
They went about a mile and a half, he said. The air was fresh. The senators were wet.
Mr. Burr has said he entered politics in the early 1990s at least in part because he had become angered by rising taxes. He ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 1992 but won two years later in a conservative wave and spent a decade in the lower chamber.
Before he became chairman of the Intelligence Committee in 2015, Mr. Burr’s tenure had been animated at times by a hawkish foreign policy and an aversion to regulations that could stifle business in the tobacco state he represents. In 2009, he tried to filibuster a bill that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the cigarette industry, a measure that eventually passed.
In his re-election campaign last year, he hugged Mr. Trump close, at least during the fall. He was named a national security adviser to the campaign and was among the most notable Republicans to stand by his endorsement after the release of the “Access Hollywood” recordings in which Mr. Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women.
This history has long left Democrats skeptical of his committee leadership.
Yet while several in the minority remain wary of Mr. Burr’s interest in an aggressive investigation, some were heartened by his unequivocal statements about Mr. Comey’s firing.
“I think he, in the past few weeks, has made indications that he is doing what he can,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Democrat, said of Mr. Burr. She added that she still believed a special counsel was needed for the Russia investigation.
Others have pointed to the committee’s decision to subpoena Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, as a sign of the investigation’s escalating seriousness.
Mr. Burr also faces little electoral pressure, in theory, as a recently re-elected senator who pledged last year that this six-year term would be his last.
In a statement, the Senate’s majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has resisted calls for a special counsel, praised Mr. Burr as “both the star of the football team and the science fair winner.”
“Smart, approachable and well respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Mr. McConnell added.
At a news conference on Thursday with Mr. Warner after the meeting with Mr. Rosenstein, Mr. Burr said he would not be cowed.
“We are willing to go to whatever basket of tools we feel is necessary,” he said.
Despite any initial misgivings about the committee before his selection — he did serve on the House Intelligence Committee before becoming a senator — allies say Mr. Burr appreciates the weight of his post.
Mr. Shumaker recalled a conversation in October 2014, as Mr. Burr prepared for his re-election campaign in 2016, about the prospects of ascending to the committee chairmanship, particularly as he expressed opposition to the country’s national security policies under President Barack Obama.
During the campaign last year, some Republican operatives worried privately that Mr. Burr was not working hard enough in what appeared to be a highly competitive race that could decide the Senate’s balance. He eventually won by about six percentage points.
Mr. Shumaker attributed any campaign shortfalls to Mr. Burr’s desire to tend to his job duties, especially on the committee.
“He received criticism for his style of campaigning,” Mr. Shumaker said. “He told me and his campaign staff on multiple occasions that his first priority was being a senator first.”
Mr. Tillis, the other North Carolina senator, said Mr. Burr understood that the title of chairman carried with it “24/7 pressure.”
“I think he’s conditioned for it,” he said.
Still, Mr. Burr’s distaste for the news media is well known at the Capitol.
On at least one occasion, he climbed out of an office window to avoid reporters, while carrying his dry cleaning, according to a senior Republican aide who has spoken to him about the episode.
“It was further than I thought,” Mr. Burr remembered of the descent, according to the aide.
He now occupies a second-floor space in the Russell Senate Office Building. It is not clear precisely how or why he chose to take this escape route — or, in fact, if this was the office in question.
“I understand from him that he did jump out a window once with his dry cleaning,” a Burr spokeswoman, Becca Glover Watkins, said in an email, “but I don’t know the circumstances.”
The investigation continues.
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