Will Richard Burr, our state’s low-key senior senator, emerge as a heroic figure as questions swirl around an embattled president?
Pundits and editorial boards have been tempted to draw parallels between the Republican from Winston-Salem and his Democratic predecessor from nearly half a century ago, Sam Ervin. The “country lawyer” from Morganton gained fame (and helped dispel his image as a dogged segregationist) by pressing the Senate inquiry into the Watergate scandal that eventually drove Richard Nixon from office. Burr today chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee that is undertaking, as a New York Times story characterized it Wednesday, “the most active congressional investigation” of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
It is an intriguing comparison, especially given the proximity of their home bases in the North Carolina foothills. An even more apt one may be to Howard Baker, the soft-spoken Tennessee Republican who was the ranking minority member on the Judiciary Committee that Ervin chaired. Baker’s relentless pressing of the question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it” came to exemplify the cascading erosion of Nixon’s support in his own party.
Burr’s turn could be even more dramatic, since Burr is chairing the probe against his own party’s president, making the stakes ever higher. He could be supplanted, too, by a special prosecutor, although it seems unlikely the Republican congressional leadership would embark on that route.
It’s important to remember we do not know the depth and breadth — or intent — of any Russian involvement, and certainly have no clue as to what extent or even whether the president or his closest associates will be implicated. But Trump’s sudden firing Tuesday of FBI Director Jim Comey, a man who until recently he praised but whose pursuit of the Russian probe may have been too intense for the president’s comfort, has intensified questions.
Burr, although an early and earnest supporter of Trump’s presidential bid, has shown signs of independence in pursuing his committee’s investigation. On Tuesday evening, he joined the ranks of Republicans raising questions about the Comey firing.
“I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination.” Burr said in a statement. He called Comey “a public servant of the highest order” who had been “more forthcoming with information than any FBI Director I can recall in my tenure on the congressional intelligence committees.”
Comey’s dismissal, Burr said, “further confuses an already difficult investigation” and “is a loss for the Bureau and the nation.”
David Gergen, who has been a counselor to presidents of both parties, posed this question on CNN Tuesday night: "Where is the Republican Howard Baker?"
Perhaps Richard Burr will provide that answer, in what could be a dramatic and memorable capstone to his career of public service.