Throughout his long and mostly uninspired political career, Richard Burr has filled the role of a classic, inoffensive, modern day American politician. Burr is reasonably telegenic, has an affinity for platitudes, remains an enigma to his constituents, is a reliable vote for the ruling class and, after a quarter century in Washington, appears to enjoy life in the nation’s capital. One quite believable rumor has it that when Burr retires from the Senate at the end of his current term, the one-time lawnmower salesman will transition to a job as a high-priced K Street lobbyist to “cash in” like so many other politicians of both major parties who’ve preceded him.
Things could be worse, of course. Burr could be a fire-breathing reactionary crusader – a true believer devoted to repealing the 20th Century like Jesse Helms, Dan Forest or Mark Meadows. Instead, Burr stakes out enough ultra-conservative positions to keep far right challengers at bay, mostly avoids embracing the extremists on the fringe and will, on rare occasion, do the right thing on a tiny handful of issues.
As with Thom Tillis – the man for whom he seems to have become a role model of sorts – one likes to think that, at least on some level, Burr knows better. It may not be a very deep-seated knowledge or anything that he’ll let get in the way of doing what’s best for Richard Burr, but at least he’s not a mendacious sociopath like Trump or a bigoted theocrat like so many other modern North Carolina politicians. If the political winds shift, Burr will likely alter his stances to accommodate them.
In normal times and under normal circumstances, having a right-of-center weathervane like Burr in office might not be that big a deal – at least for the country as a whole.
Unfortunately, these are not normal times and Burr is no ordinary backbencher in the U.S. Senate.
In 2019, the President of the United States is a dishonest, wannabe autocrat who has been accused of serious malfeasance and, perhaps, “high crimes and misdemeanors.” And Richard Burr is, mostly by virtue of having stuck around in Washington long enough, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee – a group of 15 men and women charged with investigating the effort of a hostile and powerful foreign government to manipulate the President and the United States polity.
If ever there was a time for a politician like Burr to summon forth any inner core of integrity in his possession and do the right thing, this is it.
Happily, for most of the past two years, there were some promising indications in this regard. Unlike some of his GOP colleagues in the House, Burr gives the impression of having worked cooperatively on the Russia investigation with his Democratic vice-chair, Virginia Senator Mark Warner. What’s more, Burr has mostly shied away from partisan attacks on his Democratic colleagues and/or blustering defenses of Trump
Unfortunately, these hopeful indicators were swamped in a sea of worrisome red flags last week when it was revealed in the report of special counsel Robert Mueller that Burr briefed the White House on the Russia investigation right after having met with then-FBI Director James Comey in the spring of 2017.
As multiple news outlets have reported, the Mueller investigation found that Burr apprised the White House counsel’s office on the status of the FBI investigation and the existence of four-to-five individuals whom the investigation was targeting.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the revelation is Burr’s lame and unbelievable explanation for the breach: he can’t remember it.
We’re not making this up. In a statement last week, a Burr assistant said that the senator “does not recall” the communication referenced in the Mueller report.
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at such doubletalk. Either North Carolina’s senior senator is: a) intentionally misleading the public, or b) so utterly muddle-minded that he can’t remember (and, apparently, has no records of) an enormously important conversation with the office of the President of the United States about a vital legal matter involving a threat to the health and security of American democracy.
If Burr can’t remember this (or quickly refresh his memory), what in the heck can he remember and how can he continue to play such an important role?
Given such a remarkable situation, it’s hard to see how the North Carolina Democratic Party was very far off when it issued a statement last week excoriating Burr for having “betrayed the trust of every North Carolinian when he chose allegiance to President Trump over the good of our state and our country.”
Of course, the Democrats could be wrong. It could be that Burr – a politician who infamously and pathetically bragged of instructing his wife to visit multiple ATM machines to extract as much cash as possible at the onset of the 2008 financial crisis – is really just a clueless simpleton who didn’t grasp the gravity of his action or reflect upon it long enough even to remember it.
Neither explanation, however, is very encouraging or, ultimately, satisfactory.