Richard Burr quietly did what he so often does when he surprised Washington with the early release of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony: He acted without fanfare and gave his fellow Republicans a desperately-needed boost.
The senator from North Carolina will be the Senate ringmaster, the chief inquisitor, even the tone-setter Thursday for the most intense congressional drama Washington has seen in years.when Comey takes the witness stand.
Burr is following a familiar script. He abhors political spectacle, but he’s also a savvy inside player. While social media and cable networks were breathlessly building up the Thursday Comey appearance, where he would discuss his dealings with President Donald Trump Burr coolly pre-empted the big event.
In the testimony, Comey said he told Trump several times that he was not under investigation in colluding with Russia to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
"I'm glad to have it early and posted and I'm sorry I took away from all of you guys your ability to find a source to leak it to you," Burr told reporters, according to the Washington Examiner.
Burr’s Wednesday maneuver fits a pattern. He was one of the first high profile politicians to support Trump, and he’s running one of the highest profile investigations on a matter than has clearly angered and upset the president.
Paul Shumaker, Burr’s political consultant since 1994 through five House races and three Senate contests, said to expect a "very matter-of-fact" Burr even though the Comey hearing is "by far going to be the largest stage that he’s ever played on."
So far he’s being classic Burr. Throughout a Wednesday intelligence committee hearing, where lawmakers questioned intelligence officials, Democrats and Republicans focused on headlines: Did Trump ask the intelligence officials to downplay the Russian investigation? Did they have knowledge that he had asked others to do that?
Burr stuck to an important, but far less glamorous, topic, the renewal of approval for a law governing foreign intelligence gathering. His questions were focused on the issues surrounding the law: What’s the value of keeping it going? Has it been intentionally misused? Officials insisted the law has never been intentionally misused.
As the head of the Senate committee responsible for overseeing the intelligence community, the questions were valid. But they were almost academic questions asked from someone above the fray.
He was trying to be the statesman, reminding that at some point, its investigation would bump in the investigation being run by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Burr has been acting this part professorial, part political way for a long time, notably in recent weeks. When he’s digressed, he’s been stung.
Earlier this year, in this investigation, he took a hit to his credibility when he got too overtly political. In that case, the White House asked him to offer interviews contesting allegations that Trump campaign officials had "repeated" or "constant" contact with Russian intelligence agents.
The talk around the Capitol this week has been not to expect him to lead the push, or to encourage fellow Republicans, to get Comey to disclose what his notes on meetings with Trump reveal, or to outline if in any way the president attempted to interfere in the investigation.
It would be in line with how he’s acted recently. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a committee member, had said the panel needed to "move more quickly and more transparently, particularly on the key issue of following the money in this investigation." He also voiced concerns about the resources being dedicated to the investigation.
But one of his biggest concerns was a lack of open hearings, and "We’re having a pretty big open hearing (with Comey),” he noted.
Another committee member, Sen. Angus King, Ind.-Maine, voiced similar support.
"I think right now we’re making nice and substantial progress," he said.
A North Carolina Republican political activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Burr doesn’t need worry about losing support outside of Washington D.C. by failing to push the investigation harder.
"Our people our weary and tired of all this Russia mess," he said.