While the Democrat-controlled House Intelligence Committee commands the attention of the world with impeachment proceedings against President Trump, its Senate counterpart, led by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), has remained largely overshadowed.
Burr expressed his distaste for the impeachment process during a forum with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, during a panel on Monday at Wake Forest University. Burr graduated from Wake in 1978, and is donating his congressional papers to the university.
“I’ve been through impeachment,” Burr said. “Nobody wins. Period, end of sentence. No party wins. The American people don’t win.”
Burr, who voted as a House representative in 1998 to impeach President Clinton for lying about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, described the bar for impeachment as “extremely high.” Burr characterized Trump’s critics as taking the position that he needs to be removed from office because of his rhetoric, and then cited revelations prior to the 2016 election about Trump talking about grabbing women by their genitals.
“There were some outrageous things that were released before the last election,” Burr said. “I can remember his conversation with Billy Bush. Well, that didn’t raise to the threshold that people thought he was unqualified to be president.”
Warner showed more reluctance to stake himself out on impeachment.
“We need to take a deep breath, take a step back, and recognize that we have a constitutional responsibility,” he said. “This is as serious as it gets in our form of government. And it needs to be treated with that level of seriousness. And what upsets me is, again, the men and women I work with on either team that are jumping to conclusions, either saying, ‘I’ve already made my decision that he’s guilty,’ or not. So, let’s let this play out. We should be doing it with a sense of sobriety and seriousness.”
Burr and Warner take pride in their bipartisan approach to running the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, especially in comparison to its House counterpart, where Democratic chairman Rep. Adam Schiff is managing the impeachment inquiry while Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican, has disparaged the process as being “a bit like watching a cult.”
“Twenty years from now, somebody will look at how we conducted the intelligence committee, how we interacted with 17 intelligence agencies, and they will look at the precedent we set, and hopefully they will follow us,” Burr said. “It just so happens we do it at a time when there’s a completely different approach on the House side.”
Warner interjected: “The bar’s been set pretty low.”
“The obvious thing is we can’t do it if we don’t trust each other,” Burr continued.
“Now, we don’t agree on everything. And when we don’t agree we get together and we hammer that out. If, in fact, it’s a tie, the chairman still gets to win. But to my knowledge we have never actually exercised that.”
Burr declined to take questions from the press after the program.
But Warner acknowledged that matters under investigation in the impeachment inquiry — which hinges on whether Trump used military aid and an invitation to the White House as leverage to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into the son of Trump’s political opponent Joe Biden — overlap with the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s purview.
“We’ve got counter-intelligence issues that we’ve looked at,” Warner said. “For example: How did this discredited theory about Ukraine being the source of the intervention in 2016? That is appropriate under counter-intelligence.”
Although he said some of the House Intelligence Committee’s focus is different, the impeachment process has raised concerns that the whistleblower program is being compromised.
“One of the things I feel very strongly about is I worry someone’s going to undermine the whistleblower program, the anonymity of that,” he said. “Because if you undermine that program, then you’re not going to have people step up and stand up. This is something that’s been supported 40-some years with bipartisan support.”
Burr criticized the House Intelligence Committee for not keeping a tight enough rein on information. In contrast, House Republicans have charged that the House inquiry lacks transparency, although the committee has begun releasing transcripts and will begin start holding open hearings on Wednesday.
“I would say the biggest distinction between the House and the Senate is we’ve gone for two and a half years through a Russia investigation, and until you read the report you really don’t know what we’re gonna say,” Burr said. “That’s intentional. It’s intentional because we want to protect the integrity of the committee that we’ve been tasked to be in charge of. We’re stewards of it as long as we’re there. But the precedent we set is going to be picked up by someone 20 years down the road.”
Burr took a jab at the press, noting the increasing use of anonymous sources, and extolled his committee’s penchant for secrecy.
“We’ve interviewed over 200 people in the Russia investigation,” he said. “There may be 13 that you know who we interviewed because they came out publicly, or there was some acknowledgement of a subpoena. There were 180+ people that you’ll never read about, hopefully, that came in and we interviewed because we do do things behind closed doors. And we’re not ashamed of that. We think America’s safer because we do our business behind closed doors.
“Our biggest challenge when this over is to get back to where our members don’t talk to the press, where we do our business, which is oversight over 17 agencies, so that Mark and I can look at you and absolutely assure you that everything we do lives within the letter of the law,” he added.
Burr and Warner have widely concurred on the underlying facts of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election.
On the release of the second installment of the Russia report in October, Burr said, “Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the US that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election. Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government. By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans.”
But the two lawmakers expressed differing views on what tools government has at its disposal to counter disinformation on social media.
“You gotta understand that when we saw social media used to create societal chaos in the United States, there was no legislative remedy for this because they’re under a First Amendment issue,” Burr said. “So, we could have rushed out and said, ‘Well, we’re gonna regulate this.’ And it might have made a big splash, but the two of us realized that if we did that, it would get overturned in the Supreme Court. They’ll say they have a First Amendment protection. So, it’s better in this case — and this may be the model in the future — is have government, the private sector, academia collaborate together for the good of the country.”
Warner, who co-founded the wireless telecom company that became Nextel in the 1990s, said he partly disagrees with Burr.
“I’m not 100 percent sure these platforms — there’s First Amendment rights, but the reason why these companies have no responsibility for example that a media company has is in the late ’90s when we set up rules for social media, we said, ‘Let’s consider these companies as dumb pipes, or telecom companies,’” he said. “And maybe that made sense in the late ’90s. But when 65 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook and Google, maybe we ought to be thinking that what was given them in an exemption called a Section 230 exemption, maybe needs to be revised.
“And we have already said you can’t do child pornography, you can’t do sex trafficking,” he continued. “And other countries — the UK, Australia are starting to look at content…. If you actually had to own your content that you put on Facebook and put your real identity next to that, that might decrease. Countries like Estonia have seen so much outside intervention that the only way you get on the internet and on social media in Estonia is if you validate who you are.”
Discussing emerging threats to the United States and reflecting on Russia’s meddling in 2016, Burr said, “I would say that we’re blessed with the fact that they targeted elections and not the economy.”
As members of the audience murmured in disapproval, Warner quipped, “We’re not invited back much.”