Still waiting for Burr to step up on Russia

The Observer editorial board

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), is chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), is chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. TNS

While there has been much discussion about President Trump’s first 100 days in office, we are fast-approaching another more important milestone: the first anniversary of the opening of the FBI’s investigation into potential improper contact between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian operatives. Come July, though, the public may still be saddled with too many questions and too few answers about the extent of Russia’s influence during the 2016 U.S. election because Congress seems incapable of rising to the challenge.

The Senate has been identified as the best chance for a full public accounting of what happened. That’s in part because Rep. Devin Nunes of California had to recuse himself from a House-led investigation and because Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah is resigning from Congress despite his important watchdog role.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina assured the public that the Senate investigation he is charged with leading will be aboveboard. So far, it doesn’t look anything like the balm that could help heal the country’s political wounds. Recent reports from investigative reporters with Yahoo! News, The Daily Beast and CNN suggest the investigation is stalled even as sources claim Russia allegedly tried to infiltrate the Trump campaign through Trump advisers.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday he’ll hold a hearing May 8. But the Senate Intelligence Committee hasn’t gathered documents or interviewed key witnesses three months into the probe. Though Democrats have requested evidence such as emails and phone records from the Trump campaign, Burr has yet to sign off on them. And the committee is lightly staffed and doesn’t include those with an intricate knowledge of Russia or have investigative skills.

It underscores the hyper-partisan nature of politics in Washington. A potentially hostile foreign power inserted itself into our democracy. That requires an urgency and seriousness we aren’t sure Congress understands. If such an investigation is not possible, we won’t know how vulnerable we remain to Russia during future elections, or right now.

Intelligence agencies have already determined that a combination of the propagation of Russia-inspired fake news and selectively timed leaks of sensitive emails from Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats through WikiLeaks had an impact on our elections. How to reckon with that reality responsibly to shield ourselves from further incursions is difficult enough. It’s a delicate dance, requiring a firm response without igniting an unnecessary war or harkening back to the days of the Red Scare.

Without a full, complete nonpartisan investigation, the public will be ill-equipped to assess what policy responses make the most sense, making it that much more difficult to garner widespread support. We get the politics: Burr and his colleagues were sent to Washington to further the agenda of their respective parties. Their supporters expect nothing less.

But there are moments when a political party’s short-term goals must take a backseat to the country’s well-being. This is one of those times. Burr must seize it.