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Firestorm erupts around Sen. Richard Burr, man behind Donald Trump Jr. subpoena. He's not backing down

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Former FBI Director James Comey said President Trump would’ve been charged with obstruction if he wasn’t president, during a CNN town hall broadcast.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr is not one to make a splash.

So when the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Burr chairs, issued a subpoena to Donald Trump Jr., it didn’t leak out for a couple of weeks. When the news finally broke, Burr refused to talk about it.

That didn’t stop the onslaught from fellow Republicans, including President Donald Trump who said he was “very surprised” by the move. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul called it “persecution of the president’s family.” Even Burr’s fellow North Carolina Republican, Sen. Thom Tillis, facing a primary challenge in 2020, tweeted “It’s time to move on.”

Burr is not the usual target for Republican ire. He’s been in Washington since 1995, first in the House then the Senate, and is a reliable conservative vote.

The mild-mannered senator is a far cry from the president’s Democratic critics, who have suggested Trump is “goading” impeachment by trying to overturn constitutional norms.

The subpoena “is a courageous move for Burr, for the senator, because he knew that the angriest people would be members of his own party,” Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster told USA TODAY.

“It shows that he is pretty secure both in his position in the Senate and among his own voters,” Luntz continued. He said even though Burr doesn’t have to face voters at the ballot box he still will be a senator for the next few years. Burr is not seeking re-election in 2022.

“Trump voters don’t forget and they’ll be asking him why he did this two years from now until his term is done,” he said.

The subpoena of the president’s son has ripped open a divide within the Republican Party that threatens to grow wider if Donald Trump Jr. refuses to cooperate. Burr and his GOP-led committee will then be forced to grapple with how to proceed. 

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Earlier this week, the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over an unredacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

A source familiar with the subpoena said that Trump Jr. is considering three options for dealing with the order, none of which involve going to the Hill to testify. 

One option is to ignore it entirely and let the GOP-led panel decide if they want to vote to hold him in contempt of Congress, a move the source expected would be unlikely to make it through the Republican majority in the full Senate, even if it did pass the Intelligence Committee. Trump Jr. is also considering invoking in writing his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions that lead to self-incrimination. Finally, he would be open to a possible compromise that could include written responses to questions, the source said.

Not all Republicans were critical of Burr. After the GOP lunch Thursday – where the subpoena came up – a stream of senators, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, came out and announced they had “great confidence” in Burr with whatever decision he made.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican member of the Intelligence Committee, reiterated that Burr has said there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and the chairman was “just trying to be sure that everybody’s asked all the questions” needed before proceeding.

“I don’t think there’s any possibility that any of those questions would change the conclusion,” Blunt added.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a senior GOP senator on the Intelligence Committee, slammed the request.

“My understanding is Mr. Trump Jr. has cooperated extensively with the committee. I can understand his frustration,” Cornyn said Thursday. “At some point this is not about finding facts. This smacks of politics, and I think we have an important  job to do to try to keep the Intelligence Committee out of politics.”

Other Republican senators on the committee insisted that the request was just business as usual and not related to Mueller’s report and the Trump campaign’s role. Results of that investigation were released last month in a 448-page report.

“Mueller’s was a criminal justice investigation. Ours is an intelligence investigation about the Russia threat and about the way our agencies performed,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Burr and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have created a strong bipartisan atmosphere and have vowed to conclude their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke at a breakfast Thursday organized by the Christian Science Monitor, where he called the committee “a little old-fashioned” in its attempt to maintain bipartisanship.

“I think both Burr and I have been under pressure. He’s been under pressure to get it done. I’ve been under pressure of: reach a conclusion. We’ve kind of tried to stick to: follow the facts,” Warner said.

He wouldn’t address Trump Jr. specifically, but he told reporters that “the committee has been telling everyone that we reserve the right to bring witnesses back if we have further questions or if there are inconsistencies.”

Not everything on the committee has gone according to plan. 

Burr was criticized after the Mueller report revealed that after an FBI briefing, he had briefed the White House counsel’s office about information on “4-5 targets” who either the Senate Intelligence Committee or the FBI were focused on as part of their investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Witnesses said they believed the targets were part of the Senate’s probe, but the Mueller report pointed out that Senate probes do not investigate “targets.”

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Contributing: Christal Hayes and Bart Jansen for USA TODAY

 

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