Senate Intel Chair Caught Between Russian Hacking and Donald Trump

Senate Intel Chair Caught Between Russian Hacking and Donald Trump

HAMLET, N.C. — When Richard Burr, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, is home in North Carolina, he’s never more than a 90-minute drive from a secure phone line on which he can discuss secretive security issues facing the United States. But the tie that binds Burr to Washington is tripping him up in his tough re-election race this year.

The senior senator is not only torn between Republican officials who want him constantly on the campaign trail and the very duties he’s fighting to keep, but also Donald Trump, the GOP presidential nominee. Burr has maintained his support for Trump even as the increasingly erratic real-estate-magnate-turned-politician threatens down-ballot Republicans.

GOP leaders have fretted this fall about the unexpected closeness of Burr’s race against his Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Deborah Ross, grumbling that the senator spent too much time in Washington and not enough on the trail. Burr only began campaigning in earnest in North Carolina on Oct. 3, after the Senate adjourned Sept. 28.

“The Republican National Committee always expresses frustration about the way we run campaigns in North Carolina,” Burr told Foreign Policy over the whirring of a plastics factory in Hamlet, a small town not far from the South Carolina border, which he visited on Oct. 3. “And I politely tell them to go jump off a cliff.”

If he hadn’t been in Washington presiding over one of the most important Senate committees, Burr said, he would’ve been slammed for “not doing my day job.”

Burr is also defiant in his steadfast backing of Trump — despite the growing allegations of sexual assault that have dogged the presidential nominee’s campaign since the Washington Post released a tape on Oct. 7 in which he bragged about attacking women. 

Just 20 minutes before the tape was released, the Trump campaign had announced Burr had signed on as a national security advisor.

“If in fact he did it, that would be sexual assault,” Burr said last Thursday night in a debate with Ross. “I take him at his word: He said he didn’t do it.”

North Carolina, a military-heavy, fast-changing state, is home to one of the closest races for the U.S. Senate — and the White House — nationwide. At the time of FP’s Oct. 3 interview with Burr, Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were tied in North Carolina. Now Clinton leads by 3.3 percentage points. In Burr’s Senate race against Ross, he holds a narrow lead of 1.8 percentage points, and several political sites have moved his race to “toss-up.”

Some vulnerable Republican candidates have disavowed Trump’s remarks and called for him to withdraw from the election. Others have expressed their distaste but have stuck by him, and still others have un-endorsed, and then re-endorsed, their nominee. Even before the tape or Trump’s stunning march to the GOP nomination, the Republican Party came into 2016 facing a tough election map to maintain control of the Senate, defending 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10.

Now wealthy donors are pressuring the Republican National Committee to disavow Trump and save down-ballot candidates. On Monday, Clinton’s campaign expressed confidence in her chances with a $6 million investment in seven battleground states for get-out-the-vote efforts and advertising, in order to ensure victory for other Democratic candidates as well.

“North Carolina is on the frontlines of this campaign,” said Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook. “And not just the presidential race.”

Already, outside spending to support or oppose Burr and Ross has reached more than $17 million.

Ross has raised more than $8.2 million, with $4.25 million in the third quarter, her campaign announced Oct. 2. And she has outraised Burr, a rarity for a relative newcomer. Burr’s campaign declined to share its latest fundraising totals, but said Sunday that it has $7.1 million in cash on hand.

Still, Burr defends Trump, despite the nominee’s controversies — whether his tawdry remarks toward women, or calling Mexican migrants rapists and criminals, or issuing, retracting, then repeating a ban on Muslim immigrants, or implying that blacks are waging a war on police.

“Listen, there are a lot of things that I wouldn’t say the way he does,” Burr told FP four days before the Washington Post released the tape. “One can misinterpret the point he’s trying to make.” 

Trump is also using North Carolina as a front in his all-out presidential battle. At an Oct. 14 rally in Greensboro, he declared “this whole election is being rigged.”

But according to the U.S. intelligence community, security researchers, and even Burr’s congressional colleagues, it’s the Russian government that’s attempting to sway the U.S. election. With Trump heralding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, and casting doubt on Moscow’s cyber-meddling, it’s become increasingly awkward for the Senate Intelligence chairman to defend his presidential nominee.

In an Oct. 7 joint assessment, National Intelligence Director James Clapper and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson directly accused Moscow of interfering with the American presidential election by hacking into the computer systems of U.S. political organizations and individuals.

Leaks of allegedly hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee or Clinton advisors on sites such as WikiLeaks “are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts,” the joint DNI/DHS statement said, while not naming the DNC or Clinton campaign specifically.

“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” it continued. “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

That echoed intelligence assessments security researchers and other lawmakers had been making for months. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Moscow’s goal is clearly “electing Donald Trump.”

On Sunday, Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said “there’s no question that the evidence continues to point” in Moscow’s direction for the hacking.

“There should be severe consequences to Russia or any sovereign nation that is compromising the privacy or the security of the United States of America,” Pence said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Burr has been careful to the point of reluctant to discuss the alleged Russian hacking — a case of potential state espionage that falls squarely into his committee’s oversight.

“I have yet to see anything that would lead me to believe that’s the case,” Burr told FP on Oct. 3, when asked whether he believes Russia has been interfering explicitly to benefit Trump. He called his congressional colleagues’ warnings “probably incorrect,” adding, “They give the impression there’s one cyber-problem in the world: Russia and the elections, and that’s a huge understatement.”

He said he couldn’t speak to the DNC hack because the Obama administration hadn’t yet declassified its findings. At the time, Burr said “actual manipulation of the vote can’t happen” because the DHS has assured lawmakers that no U.S. ballot machines are connected to the internet. Yet the New York Times reported days later that federal officials have already begun helping states with online management of elections systems to beef up cybersecurity.

In an Oct. 13 debate with Ross, Burr’s rhetoric on Russia seemed to trip him up.

“You don’t think the Russians are behind the DNC hacks?” moderator Jonathan Karl pressed.

“I’m not in a position that I could make a comment on it,” Burr said.

When Karl then read the Oct. 7 DNI/DHS statement, Burr responded, “I’m not sure that the reports that you read are from official sources.”

Almost half of Trump supporters believe Russia is a friendly nation to the United States, according to a new poll by Politico/Morning Consult released Monday. 

Ross, formerly the executive director of the state American Civil Liberties Union and a Duke Law School professor, singled out Burr’s stumble on the suspected Russian hacking to argue that he “has not shown the judgment” expected of the chair of the Senate Intelligence panel. 

Burr’s campaign responded Sunday, saying the senator “chose to be particularly cautious with potential sensitive information” in the debate.

“Unlike Hillary Clinton, Sen. Burr puts our national security first by protecting classified information,” the campaign statement said.

Burr has played an unusually active role in trying to shape U.S. national security strategy since taking up the intelligence panel’s gavel when Republicans took over the Senate majority in 2015.

He aggressively sought to block the release of the CIA “torture report,” and is an unabashed defender of the intelligence community’s surveillance programs. He also took on Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, to keep the covert U.S. drone program under the CIA instead of transferring it to the auspices of the Pentagon, where it would be more transparent.

Trump’s national security strategy has been all over the map. He’s vowed to bring back “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding when interrogating terror suspects and pledged to “bomb the hell out of ISIS.” Yet, upending decades of Republican doctrine, Trump trumpets a neo-isolationist “America First” foreign policy, suggesting he’ll pull the U.S. military out of NATO. He’s encouraged Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons, but suggested the United States should either form a military alliance with Russia — or leave the war in Syria to Moscow.

This leaves Burr and other GOP hawks walking a rhetorical tightrope.

At the country club of the famous Pinehurst, N.C., golf courses, the senator repeatedly plugged Trump’s candidacy at a Republican women’s luncheon on Oct. 3. But Burr also called for maintaining U.S. leadership abroad and a renewed commitment to international alliances.

While he said Trump has a point “about the insanity of what we’ve currently been doing” in Syria, where the United States has failed to secure a lasting cease-fire or, more recently, stem Russian firepower from backing strongman President Bashar al-Assad, Burr told FP that he doesn’t agree that Washington should simply let Moscow find an end to the five-year civil war.

Ross has seized on Burr’s support for Trump to undermine his experience overseeing national security, and shore up her shallow résumé on foreign policy.

“While Sen. Burr continues to support a presidential candidate who admires Putin, I support sanctions on Russia for their invasion of Crimea, increased NATO deployment to Eastern Europe, and punishment for cyber-attacks,” she told FP in response to emailed questions last Friday.

Ross also said Burr’s continued argument that Trump — “an admitted sexual predator” — is “fit to serve as commander in chief … shows he’ll put his own political self-interest above everything else.”

Ross is in a position to benefit from Trump’s demeaning talk about women, continuing the GOP’s demographic deficit in the “New South,” where population shifts are steadily turning North Carolina increasingly Democratic.

The state population is roughly 9 percent Latino, 22 percent black, and 51 percent female, according to the latest Census data. All three groups overwhelmingly favor Clinton. Across North Carolina this year, Democrats hold a lead of about 645,000 voters, according to state registration data. Early voting begins on Oct. 20 and typically accounts for about 60 percent of the vote.

Still, elections here tend to be tight. Around this time in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama led then-GOP nominee Sen. John McCain by 1 point  — and Obama won by 0.3, according to Real Clear Politics. In 2012, then-GOP nominee Mitt Romney led the president by 4.7 points and won by 2. In 2016, various lawsuits to stop early voting and voter registration — mobilization efforts that tend to favor Democrats — are being fought in North Carolina. Tensions are high; last weekend, a GOP headquarters in North Carolina was firebombed.

Now that Democrats sense an opening, Burr is on his own against not only Ross, but also Clinton’s most powerful surrogates. Among them is first lady Michelle Obama, whom Ross introduced at a massive Oct. 4 rally at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

“I think we can all agree someone roaming around at 3 a.m. tweeting should not get their fingers on the nuclear codes,” Obama said, referring to Trump.

Sitting alone at the Thirsty Beaver, a tiny dive bar in Charlotte, Grant Hallums said he’s voting for Ross and Clinton — not just because he’s a black Democrat, but because “women are good for politics.”

“They tend to be less hawkish,” said Hallums, a retired postal worker who served in the military from 1973 to 1996, “and not so quick to make rash decisions with American troops.”

Trump’s suggestion that he would pull out of NATO, and his friendliness toward Putin, demonstrate he’s “not fit to be commander in chief,” Hallums said. He also predicted that with “security on people’s minds,” Burr will lose along with Trump.

The next day, back at the country club in Pinehurst, unabashed Trump supporter Pauline Bruno agreed that security issues are “extremely important” in driving votes in North Carolina. Wearing silver eyeliner and a too-big red T-shirt reading “Adorable Deplorable” over her dress — a sarcastic reference to Clinton’s description of Trump supporters — Bruno said she’s “all for” pulling the U.S. military out of NATO and allied countries. She would also welcome any immigrant into the United States — “if they came legally.”

She’ll vote for Burr in November, “just because his opponent is so awful.” But, she said, “I have more faith in Donald Trump than I do in Sen. Burr.”

Photo credit: SARA D. DAVIS/Stringer