Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr came out swinging at former FBI Director James Comey – in his low-key, genteel way – and Trump administration supporters loved it.
Leading off questioning at Thursday’s intensely watched hearing, the North Carolina Republican had Comey state that President Donald Trump didn’t pressure him to stop an investigation into Russian interference in November’s election.
And to the delight of Trump loyalists, not to mention many Republicans, Burr injected Bill and Hillary Clinton, longtime ogres of the conservative cause, into the mix.
Burr’s was a strategy designed to offer conservatives a simple, sound bite-friendly ways to support the White House.
The senator was trying to “reduce this to the lowest common denominator, that at the end of the day, the president was not trying to obstruct the investigation,” said Kenneth Khachigian, a former aide to President Richard Nixon and speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.
Trump backers quickly embraced and trumpeted Burr’s approach, taking to Twitter and television to say he bolstered the president’s argument that all the talk of possible collusion between Trump’s campaign is politically-motivated much ado about nothing.
Donald Trump, Jr. agreed. While his father didn’t tweet during the intelligence committee hearing, the younger Trump did. He retweeted a tweet from the Republican National Committee sent shortly after Burr’s questioning that said "So according to Comey, @POTUS never asked to stop investigation and Russia didn’t change a single vote. Good to know."
"Kind of a big deal…No?" Trump, Jr., said in response to the tweet.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee grabbed onto to Burr’s question to Comey about why he went public with the outcome of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Comey said he felt compelled to do so after an airport tarmac meeting between former President Bill Clinton and then then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport last year.
Comey added that he was "confused" and "concerned" that Lynch "had directed me" not to call the Clinton probe an "an ‘investigation,’ but instead call it a ‘matter.’"
"I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the investigation, which meant both the FBI and the Justice Department," Comey told Burr.
"Will fmr AG Lynch be charged w/obstruction of justice after Comey revelations of demands she made? Will Dems demanded it?" tweeted Huckabee, whose daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is principal White House press secretary.
Burr played particularly well among North Carolina conservatives.
Dan DiMicco, a former Trump transition team member who was considered for the administration’s trade representative post, said Burr "did extremely well" in questioning Comey.
"What I think it should do is it should move the ball in showing that the investigation is unwarranted and to move on so that we can to deal with the issues important to the country and important to the American people who elected Trump to be president…" said DiMicco, former chief executive of Nucor, America’s largest steel company.
"I think Senator Burr, leading the way, and making sure we properly frame what this is and is not, I think is critical," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
He added that Comey "vindicated the president from a standpoint of not being under investigation, and that’s key."
While several Republicans and conservatives praised Burr for defending Trump, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the senator appeared even-handed in dealing with Comey.
"I don’t think he was in there trying to carry the administration’s water on this," Steele said.
Either way, the usually quiet Burr was in a spotlight he rarely sees.
He wound up on TMZ, the edgy entertainment news website known for chasing high-profile celebrities down. He was forecasting for the TMZ cameras about the magnitude of and ratings potential for Thursday’s hearing.
"Oh, I think there’s gonna be a big national and international viewership of this," he said.
Burr patiently fielded reporters' questions after the hearing, even while using an ATM in the basement of the Senate. Asked if he trusted Comey – and after seeing that reporters weren't looking at his access code – he said he was "on the record that I trust James Comey.”
He said that he doesn't believe Comey alluded to Trump obstructing justice: "I didn't hear it," he said.
The questions over, he boarded one of the Senate shuttles for the trip back to his office, a smile crossing his face. A few moments later someone noticed his bank card had been left behind in the machine.