News

Special Washington update: There’s another Russia report coming (and Richard Burr is in the middle of it)

Senator Richard Burr

WASHINGTON — The political fight over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is expected to explode next week when lawmakers reconvene on Capitol Hill for the first time since the public release of the report.

As the partisan caterwauling continues over what Congress should do next, two low-key senators will be leading discussions behind closed doors about how their own report should move forward.

Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia – the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – have been working largely behind the scenes on their own investigation into Russian election interference.

Their collaboration has been billed as an effort that’s remained largely bipartisan on a topic and in a political climate where work across the aisle is exceedingly rare. But a rift between Burr and Warner that spilled into public view earlier this year could deepen as lawmakers spar over Mueller’s public finding and as Democrats demand answers from Burr about new revelations about his communication with the White House about the FBI’s investigations.

Warner laid out his hopes for the Senate’s next steps in an op-ed published Thursday in USA Today, demanding that Congress investigate Mueller’s “sobering findings regarding the president’s attempts to obstruct justice.”

Warner wrote: “The special counsel’s investigation now confronts us with an important choice. We can overlook the president’s morally outrageous behavior; we can ignore the deep deficiencies in our laws and our defenses against foreign interference; or we can do everything in our power to make sure that what happened in 2016 can never happen again.”

Burr, on the other hand, has been cautious in his comments about the president. In a statement issued the day the Mueller report was released, the North Carolina senator didn’t mention Trump.

“I am reviewing Special Counsel Mueller’s report carefully. Furthermore, I look forward to presenting the American people with an accounting of the facts the Committee has uncovered as we conclude our own investigation,” Burr said. “It is my hope to release the first of our final reports in the coming weeks.”

Burr’s office did not respond to requests for comment about whether he plans to ask Mueller to testify before his committee, or whether the report raises new issues that the committee intends to pursue.

The Mueller report revealed that Burr apparently supplied the White House counsel’s office with information about FBI investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Politico reported.

Burr’s spokeswoman, Caitlin Carroll, told Politico that the senator “does not recall this specific conversation with then-White House counsel Don McGahn in March of 2017, but that “any conversations between the two would have been in reference to the need for White House personnel to voluntarily comply with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation.”

A Democratic committee aide said the status of the investigation has been largely unchanged by the release of the Mueller report, although it’s a little easier to say with confidence that the Senate report will wrap up by the end of this year. The end of Mueller’s investigation could make it easier for the committee to get access to witnesses.

Warner issued a statement last week calling it “essential that Congress hear directly” from Mueller regarding his investigation. “The Senate Intelligence Committee continues its own investigation, and I expect to receive a full briefing, an unredacted report, and all the materials underlying the Special Counsel’s findings,” Warner said.

Warner’s office declined to comment on the revelations about Burr’s communications with the White House that were revealed in Mueller’s report.

But some think those revelations threaten the integrity of the Senate investigation.

“Burr has a lot of explaining to do,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and director of CAP Action Fund’s Moscow Project. Read more

Commentary

Editorial: What Richard Burr must do next in Russia investigation

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In case you missed it yesterday, there was an excellent Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com (“Sen. Burr’s big job — expose and stop Russian meddling in U.S. elections”) outlining what needs to happen next with Senator Richard Burr’s investigation into Russian interference in American politics now that Robert Mueller has concluded his investigation. As the editorial notes, it’s clear Russia interfered:

Russia engaged in an extensive campaign – not limited to social media — to subvert and influence the 2016 presidential election. Evidence indicates they staged phony rallies, issued bogus news releases and more.

As much as it matters who Russia helped, it matters even more that it was done and cheapened every American vote. As chairman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Burr must make sure his committee completes a thorough investigation into what the Russians did and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Americans cannot tolerate elections that are manipulated by foreign governments looking to sow confusion and strife.

So, Senator Burr and his colleague, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia (pictured above left), need to press on to uncover and make public all of the details:

“Burr and his committee need to review the FULL Mueller report in detail. The committee – Republicans and Democrats – need to look beyond the partisan implications. The biggest concerns aren’t to hurt or help candidates, campaigns or political parties.

Burr’s committee needs to finish its work – a job that will be complete when it: Details how foreign forces manipulated campaigns and voters; Identifies those who did it; Demanding they be brought to justice and; Comes up with practical ways to stop it from happening in 2020.

It is irrelevant to the important work that Burr’s committee needs to complete whether political parties, partisan operatives or candidates are to blame or are blameless.

Most specifically, Sen. Burr, tell us what the Russians did in 2016 and what you’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Click here to read the entire editorial.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy

Burr, Tillis, help Senate confirm true extremist to nation’s second highest court

Sen. Richard Burr

Sen. Thom Tillis

It’s easy to become numb to the steady parade of extreme reactionaries that the Trump administration continues to install in offices of great responsibility, but here’s one that folks ought to take notice of. Today, the United States Senate approved Trump’s nomination of Neomi Rao to serve as a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — the court generally recognized as the nation’s second highest. Rao takes the slot vacated by Brett Kavanaugh when he ascended to the Supreme Court. North Carolina’s Richard Burr and Thom Tillis both voted “yes” on the nomination.

Check out what the nonpartisan court watchers at the Alliance for Justice had to say about today’s vote and Rao’s abhorrently extreme views:

“The Senate voted today to confirm Neomi Rao for Brett Kavanaugh’s old seat on the D.C. Circuit over the objections of advocates and communities representing millions of Americans, including sexual assault survivors, people of color, LGBTQ people, women, and people with disabilities. Rao has blamed sexual assault survivors for being attacked, shamed women for seeking equality in the workplace, belittled the fight for racial justice, and demeaned LGBTQ people. She has proven her willingness to put her dangerous rhetoric into policy time and time again during her tenure at OIRA, rolling back public protections for these communities, the environment, immigrants, and more. She has made clear she wants to use the courts to weaken protections for health and safety, workers, and consumers. Neomi Rao is unfit to serve for a lifetime on the federal bench, but Senate Republicans strong-armed members of their own party to confirm her anyway. With this vote, they have proven that they will go to outrageous lengths to pack our courts with more of Trump’s abhorrent judicial nominees.”

And this is from the good people at the Center for American Progress:

“President Donald Trump and the Senate majority are trying to pack the courts with yet another narrow-minded, partisan judge who will put the interests of big business and the wealthy before those of everyone else. While serving as Trump’s regulatory czar, Neomi Rao signed off again and again on regulations that give powerful corporations special breaks at the expense of people’s health and safety. She has also shown a disturbing bias against victims of sexual assault and has an unacceptable history of disparaging women’s rights.

But this is about more than just one judge; it’s about the whole conservative court-packing scheme playing out before our eyes. The Senate majority refused to confirm scores of federal judges in the last two years of the Obama administration and is now changing the rules to fill those stolen seats as fast as humanly possible. Conservatives have cut home-state senators out of the process, ignored negative ratings from the American Bar Association, and rubber-stamped judges without looking closely at their records. Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is trying to put the process on steroids by changing the rules for district court judges. Court-packing is happening right now. And if we do nothing, it’s going to have consequences for an entire generation. We need to fight for a fair-minded judiciary that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.”

All in all, it’s a truly sad day for the country.

Commentary

Editorial: Did Richard Burr campaign violate federal law?

Sen. Richard Burr

In case you missed it, be sure to check out a new editorial posted in the Charlotte Observer entitled “Burr, NRA appear to be even tighter than we thought.” In it, the authors explore the evidence of illegal coordination between Richard Burr’s 2016 reelection campaign and the National Rifle Association.

This is from the editorial:

We already knew North Carolina’s senior U.S. senator, Richard Burr, was awash in NRA cash. We already knew the pro-gun group spent $5.6 million in 2016 against his Democratic opponent, Deborah Ross — twice as much as it spent on any other House or Senate candidate.

But only now do we know that Burr and the National Rifle Association may have broken the law by coordinating their advertising campaigns. Documents from the Federal Communications Commission show that the NRA’s ads in Burr’s race were authorized by the same media consultant working for Burr’s campaign, Mother Jones and The Trace reported on Friday.

That would appear to break federal law that requires candidates and outside groups to be independent of each other. Outside groups can make “independent expenditures” on so-called “issue ads,” which typically back or attack one candidate or the other. But the spending can’t be coordinated with an individual’s campaign. That law is designed in part to keep advocacy groups from exceeding contribution limits to individual candidates.

In a series of TV ads in 2016, the NRA attacked Ross for her record as a state legislator on gun control, saying she voted against gun rights and “personal liberty.” It was part of an avalanche of outside money dumped into the swing-state race with control of the U.S. Senate at stake.

Mother Jones and The Trace report that Jon Ferrell, CFO of a company called National Media Research, Planning and Placement, authorized ad purchases both for Burr’s campaign and for NRA ads in Burr’s race. He placed some TV ads in the closing weeks of the campaign as an “agent for Richard Burr Committee” and others at around the same time for the NRA against Ross. Mother Jones found similar activity in 2018 Senate races in Missouri and Montana.

Campaigns and outside groups can hire the same vendors but those vendors must have strict firewalls to prevent collaboration. A Burr campaign official suggested to the Observer editorial board that such a firewall was in place. But it’s hard to see how that’s so since Ferrell was involved with both sets of ads.

The editorial concludes by calling on the Federal Elections Commission, which has a record of being pretty slack in its enforcement of the coordination ban, to get moving and enforce it strictly in 2020 — especially given the flood of cash the NRA seems likely to dump on Thom Tillis’ campaign.
Commentary

Another editorial pleads with Burr, Tillis to end ideological attack on federal courts

Sen. Thom Tillis, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Sen. Richard Burr

As Clayton Henkel noted yesterday, the Winston-Salem Journal published a strong editorial blasting Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis for supporting Donald Trump’s “woefully bad” nominee for federal judge in North Carolina’s Eastern District, Raleigh lawyer Thomas Farr, This morning, a Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com offers a follow-up in which it takes the two senators to task for their general approach to advancing Trump judicial nominees.

In “Burr, Tillis must set higher standards for judicial nominees,” it’s noted that the two senators’ ideological crusade has led them stoop so low as to even support three court nominees rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. Here’s the conclusion to the editorial:

It is extremely rare for a presidential nominee to receive a “not qualified” rating — just six of Trump’s 159 picks. But Burr and Tillis have voted for three who have come to the Senate for roll calls.

Two of those, most recently Jonathan Kobes in the Eight Judicial District Court of Appeals and earlier Stephen Grasz (of the same district appeals court) got critical votes from Burr and Tillis that provided the margin of victory. Grasz was approved 50-48 while Kobes, who won approval earlier this week, was approved 51-50 – with Vice President Mike Pence casting the history-making tie-breaker vote.

Kobes, who was general counsel to U.S. Sen. Mike Round, R-.S.D., couldn’t provide examples of his legal writing that were “reflective of complex legal analysis, knowledge of the law, or ability to write about complex matters in a clear and cogent manner – qualities that are essential for a circuit court judge,” said Paul T. Moxley, chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.

What defense is there to support a nominee the ABA deems unqualified? It is not an ideology issue. It is not that these nominees possess some unique qualification that somehow the ABA is overlooking (other than chummy connections with powerful Republicans).

Mere competence is not an excessive qualification for a lifetime appointment to critical job.

When it comes to administering justice, Burr and Tillis aren’t doing the job for the North Carolinians who put them in office. They need to demand more of judicial nominees than a pleasingly partisan resume and fealty to Donald Trump.