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Senate intel committee chair briefs Journal on investigation

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and is leading the panel’s investigation into allegations of collusion between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian government.

The low-key senator, who played football at Wake Forest University and managed sales for a lawn equipment company in Winston-Salem before entering national politics in the mid-1990s, has won generally favorable reviews for his leadership of the Russia inquiry, including from Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat.

“We’re in very different spots on the political bell curve, I guess, but I think he’s done a good job of running these hearings in a way that is much more transparent than I think is necessarily his preference,” Heinrich told the Journal.

Indeed, Burr told the Journal he would prefer to conduct most of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s business in private – not surprising considering the clandestine nature of the CIA, National Security Agency and other government organizations charged with protecting U.S. secrets.

But in a conversation about Heinrich, Burr was forthcoming about not only the senator from New Mexico, but also about his approach to running the committee, what’s next for the Russia investigation and whether he expects it to find collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.

Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

Journal: You and Sen. Heinrich are on opposite sides of the aisle, so we appreciate you taking time to talk to us about him.

Burr: Well, the first thing you have to understand is that there is no aisle in the committee. That’s sort of a long-held belief that the committee is there to function as close to a majority vote as we possibly can. In the routine business of the committee, there is nothing that passes on a party-line vote.

Journal: Some Republicans outside of the committee have complained that Democrats, including Heinrich, may be using these high-profile hearings as a way to score political points against President Trump. Do you see that on the committee?

Burr: The only thing I look at from a standpoint of public comments from either side of the aisle is, do they disclose anything that should not be discussed in public? And I have certainly not found Martin to do that. It would concern me, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, if they did that, given the sensitive nature of the things we deal with. I think he, like most on the committee, understands the unique nature of serving on a committee that for the most part you should never hear about.

Journal: You and Heinrich have clashed on some intelligence issues, releasing the CIA’s report about torture of Guantanamo detainees, for example. So, it’s obvious you don’t always agree, right?

Burr: We have our disagreements among a lot of members of the committee, but at the end of the day we’re asked to make decisions about going forward. I think most any public disagreements we may have had … is about looking backwards. As I’ve said for the last three years (Burr’s tenure as chairman), my attempt is to make sure that the committee function is in real time. We may miss something, and I’ll take the blame for that. We can never run the committee going backwards. We’ve got to do it going forward, especially in times like we are in now.

Journal: As Congress heads back into session this fall, what’s next for the Russia investigation?

Burr: I have aspirational goals of finishing by the end of the year. I look at the investigation as two distinctly separate parts. One is an assessment of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, and we are very close to interviewing and reviewing all of the documents as it relates to that specific issue, as it relates to either of the specific campaigns’ possible collusion with Russian officials. We’ve had over a hundred interviews with individuals. We continue to go wherever there is intelligence that suggests we need to look. As a committee, we are distracted to some degree with news accounts that we have to spend a week, two weeks, three weeks on, and we find nothing to be factual. It’s hard for me to get a gauge, but it’s my aspirational goal to have everything wrapped up by the end of the year, but that’s making a big assumption. I’m pleased with the document production we’ve had to date, and I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made with the interviews. I just can’t say with a 100 percent certainty there’s not going to be something next week that we just didn’t have on our deck.

Journal: You just suggested that both the Democratic and Republican campaigns are part of this investigation of collusion with Russia. Most Americans think the committee is focused on the Trump campaign in this investigation. With respect to the Democrats, what are you referring to?

Burr: When we started the investigation, we said (the committee would look into) collusion with either campaign. There have been some articles with enough basis that they have to be checked out relative to the Clinton campaign. There are still questions that surround (the leak of) Democratic National Committee emails, but also the (Clinton campaign manager John) Podesta emails that in one case found their way to WikiLeaks. In the other case (the DNC emails), it doesn’t seem to be WikiLeaks. Since no one has claimed the Trump campaign hacked the Podesta emails or the DNC emails, it deserves the attention of the committee to see if we can reconstruct the pathways that they found their way to the ultimate source that leaked them.

Journal: Do you think this investigation’s conclusion will find collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians?

Burr: I don’t think there is any intelligence that would suggest that to be factual. There is conjecture. There are certainly articles that say this meeting took place – obviously Don Jr.’s meeting was a Russian individual and individuals, plural. I make an assumption that every Russian has a connection to the (Russian) government. The question is what the true intent of the meeting is and of all the people we interviewed did we hear the same story. I think we’ve already taken some of those things – Attorney General Sessions is a great example. Prior to his public testimony, I think everybody had condemned him to a meeting that not only publicly he said didn’t happen but every person we’ve interviewed that we know to have been at that event said it didn’t happen. Without the investigation, it’s impossible for us to lay down on the table here are the facts as we found them.

Journal: Thanks for taking time to talk to the Albuquerque Journal today.

Burr: Thank you.