Richard Burr faces intense pressure from Republicans to drop his subpoena of President Donald Trump’s eldest son and quickly wrap up the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe.
But despite a day facing attacks from the highest rungs of party leadership, Burr is unmoved, according to colleagues in both parties.
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The North Carolina Republican declined to address the criticism or the subpoena to reporters, but there is no talk yet of withdrawing the subpoena, according to Republican senators. Burr gave a brief update on the status of his Russia investigation at a Senate GOP lunch on Thursday, attendees said.
Burr, known for his independent streak, appeared happy to ignore the political storm he had fueled.
“I told you I’m not going to chat right now. I’m in the middle of something,” Burr said as he made his way to lunch in the Senate dining room. Afterward, he posed for pictures with his lunch guests, then walked into the Capitol and kept his public silence.
Some of Burr’s GOP colleagues, however, were eager to offer complaints that the Intelligence Committee is still working its probe weeks after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report was released.
“The subpoenas can’t happen without a Republican being for it, and I would hope that Republicans would stand firm and say enough’s enough,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is close to Donald Trump Jr. “This is a great sort of assault on someone, in the sense that you put yourself in jeopardy anytime you come in and testify.”
“This is one great big politicized, political football,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), another Trump Jr. ally. He described broad GOP “frustration on what’s going on at the moment. It’s time to move on from these investigations.”
Some Intelligence Committee members said the panel would need to address the controversial subpoena, which was issued by Burr and the Democratic vice chairman of the committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. The subpoena was sent days ago, but news of it leaked just one day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared the Mueller investigation “case closed.”
“The Mueller report has concluded no collusion, and Barr said no obstruction. What’s the deal? Why is this continuing on? I think there needs to be a better conversation about that,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an Intelligence Committee member.
He later declared he has “confidence” in Burr but reiterated “we pretty much know just about everything we need to know.” His fellow Texan Ted Cruz agreed, tweeting: “There’s no need for another subpoena.” Others were harsher. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) called Burr’s move “beyond inappropriate” and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said it was “bad form” not to give the president a heads-up.
Trump name-checked Burr on Thursday, expressing his disapproval with the subpoena and arguing his son had been “totally exonerated” by Mueller.
“I was very surprised,” Trump told reporters. “I saw Richard Burr saying there was no collusion two or three weeks ago.”
Indeed, the family element of the subpoena heightened the tension. Trump Jr. has been closely linked to Trump’s style of politics, barnstorming the country last year on behalf of GOP Senate candidates and seen within the Republican Party as a loyal soldier.
So there was little surprise within Capitol Hill that the subpoena became an intraparty flash point.
“Bringing in the son of the president? That’s quite intense, let’s put it that way, to go do that,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
And though many Trump-aligned Republicans are criticizing the committee — and in some cases Burr himself — it’s not a unanimous view.
“He’s a good chairman, and I don’t have any problem with his decision,” said Intelligence Committee member Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “I don’t have any reason to disagree with Sen. Burr’s decision.”
Blunt and Cornyn said there has been no discussion of reversing the subpoena.
“Conservatives shouldn’t criticize Burr. Because Burr was assigned the lead role on all of this Russia collusion stuff by the leader,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “The leader had confidence in Burr’s leadership, nobody else ought to be questioning it.”
Democrats also backed up Burr, a three-term senator with a conservative voting record, a North Carolina drawl and a laid-back attitude that includes usually wearing no socks and bringing his own lunch to catered party confabs.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we’re the only committee that’s kept bipartisan through this whole investigation,” said Warner. “The chairman’s had pressure to shut this down this down for a long time. I’ve had pressure to reach a conclusion before we’re finished. We’re going to do our job.”
“The case is not closed as far as our committee is concerned,” said Intelligence Committee member Angus King (I-Maine), referring to McConnell’s comments.
McConnell declined to comment for this story. But he did tout the importance of Burr’s investigation on Tuesday even as he dismissed Democrats’ calls to continue litigating the Mueller report and questions of collusion and obstruction.
Yet to many Republicans, the news of Trump Jr.’s subpoena presented a painful dilemma: Stand with a respected GOP chairman who has held together his committee for years during a contentious probe, or with a president who takes vengeance on fellow Republicans who cross him and his family.
“I don’t want to second-guess Richard,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). But he added: “Put yourself in Don Jr.’s place. In this environment would you go to Round 5?”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is facing a primary challenge in his reelection race next year, tweeted about the subpoena and said it is “time to move on.” But he protested when asked whether he was frustrated with Burr.
“I respect Sen. Burr more than anybody else in the U.S. Senate because I know him better than anybody else, and he’s got a tough job to do and he’s done a good job,” Tillis said. He said his tweet was intended to “quickly head off” Democrats from trying to go on the attack.
Burr has been a complex figure in the long-running investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He’s skipped events with Trump to maintain the appearance of neutrality, yet also was cited in the Mueller report for apparently briefing White House officials on the FBI’s Russia probe. Burr reportedly helped the administration knock down stories about links between the Trump campaign and Russia, yet also maintained unity on his committee while the House Intelligence panel self-destructed amid partisan acrimony.
The North Carolina Republican’s latest move deepens the intrigue and tensions in the GOP over the investigation. But Burr’s allies say it’s all overblown.
“We’re not prosecutors,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “We’re an oversight committee … and I think it’s important for us to finish this report.”