Could there be a Republican in the Senate who would dare run an investigation showing in minute detail what Russia did to boost Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House in 2016 — let alone as the president, secretary of state, attorney general and American’s former mayor are caught red-handed trying to gin up alternate facts?
There is. Senate Intelligence chair Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, has been laying out the evidence as it was impartially gathered, hand in glove with an unlikely sidekick, Democratic ranking member Sen. Mark Warner.
Last week, in the second of what will be five reports from interviews with over 200 witnesses, including Don “dirt on Hillary? I’d love it!” Jr., the committee documented Russia’s efforts to sow political discord and spread disinformation on social media, specifically outlining how the notorious Internet Research Agency troll farm under the direction of the Kremlin “sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton's chances of success and supporting Donald Trump.” Likewise, the first chapter, released in July, confirmed the consensus of America’s intelligence agencies that Russia launched a coordinated attack on the integrity of our presidential and state elections.
Majority and minority committee heads are arranged marriages and the one atop Senate Intel is an unlikely mix between a Cheshire Cat (Burr) and a St. Bernard (Warner). Burr is a the son of a Southern minister and distant cousin of Aaron Burr, whose shooting of Alexander Hamilton gave Broadway one of its highest-grossing musicals. Quirky, in sockless feet, with a Volkswagen convertible covered in campaign bumper stickers and a Christmas wreath from two years ago, Burr doesn’t go on talk shows, write op-eds, or give interviews unless a scrum of reporters stop his forward progress and then he politely refers them to his statement. He once climbed out of a window onto the balcony of the Capitol, dry-cleaning over his arm, to escape a reporter pursuing him.
Warner is garrulous and out-there, a high-tech millionaire who has more answers than Siri and talks twice as fast. He earned Burr’s trust, and vice versa. During two years in which a Republican eating lunch with a Democrat in the dining room could get you thrown into the moat of alligators Trump dreams of building, these two had each other’s backs. Any disagreements, Burr said in a request for comment, were settled by “picking up the phone or getting together and talking things through.” Witnesses, he said, would come “out of interviews and tell us that they couldn’t tell who was a Republican and who was a Democrat… that’s the way it should be.”
That isn’t the way it’s playing out in the House Intelligence Committee, where Democratic chair Adam Schiff and ranking member Devin Nunes live life in turmoil, every hearing a three-ring circus with Nunes mumbling nonsense and Ohio’s Jim Jordan, in shirtsleeves meant to lend him everyman bluntness, shouting it.
Nunes will long be remembered for his extracurricular wet work to defend Trump. Like Groucho Marx with a fake mustache, he sulked incognito to the White House in the dead of night to pick up purloined documents which would expose the inquiry into Russia’s meddling as a hoax. The documents were publicly available and the only thing exposed was the foolish lengths Nunes would go to.
Burr’s report, by contrast, flatly calls on Trump to "reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election” and “reduce the threat.” This effort to learn from past mistakes goes against Moscow Mitch’s slow-walking legislation that would help. To those disinclined to take Burr’s advice, listen to Putin fake-whispering in an interviewer’s ear about intervening again: "I'll tell you a secret: Yes, we'll definitely do it. Just don't tell anyone.”
The question now is if other Republicans will risk Trump’s fury to become more like Burr and less like Nunes. The president is unraveling before their eyes, saying his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani only “has been” his attorney after his clients Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas were frogmarched out of Dulles airport clutching their one-way, non-refundable tickets to Vienna where Giuliani was to meet them in a few days. Like Paul Manafort, Trump’s enablers today are tomorrow’s faces in pictures Trump can’t quite recall. A federal appeals court ruled Friday the president will have to give up his tax returns to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. If they’re anything like the returns of Trump’s father, analyzed by The New York Times, we will learn why Trump refused to release them. The year-long investigation revealed that Trump received the equivalent of at least $413 million in today’s dollars from Fred Trump, through dubious, and sometimes fraudulent, tax schemes during the 1990s.
The strain is showing. Trump impulsively abandoned our Kurdish allies in Syria to be slaughtered by his friend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That was bound to attract the wrath of his usual lap dogs like Sen. Lindsey Graham he needs to protect him on the impeachment front. Trump was fully unhinged at a rally in Minneapolis, where the city is still trying to get him to pay up for his last visit. The anger was raw, R-rated, with a cameo by his “boy” Eric leading a boy-to-boy attack on Hunter Biden with the chant “lock him up.” Menacingly, Trump paraded a long line of red-shirted “Trump cops” across the podium in a display of firepower pledged to a leader who commits crimes in plain sight because the law is what an authoritarian says it is. Trump repeated the performance in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Friday night.
The presidency is now seen through the prism of the red wall. Romney created one crack. Senators running for reelection in bluish states are watched for others. Burr, who is not running again, is likely not Barry Goldwater, going to Nixon to tell him it’s time to leave. He's simply brave enough to run an investigation of a president from his own party with even-handedness and integrity.
And that’s opened a big crack. Burr got unanimous backing for the report, including Trump-friendly members like Roy Blunt and John Cornyn, who’ve tried to brush off the president's claims of a witch hunt as hyperbole and his invitation to Ukraine and China to investigate Biden as a joke. It’s doubtful the two are laughing on the inside. The document their names are on is not a bit funny.
A crack is a dangerous thing. One here, one there, and soon the building comes tumbling down. Then, all of Mitch’s horses and all of his men can’t put the Senate together again.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s "Capital Gang" and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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