WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 03: Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, speaks during a hearing on the nomination of Miguel A. Cardona, of Connecticut, to be Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill on February 3, 2021 in Washington, DC. Previously Cardona served as Connecticut’s Education Secretary. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker – Pool/Getty Images)
“You watch, he’s going to win.” That was U.S. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, election eve 2016. As he sat in his house on Pine Valley Road in Winston-Salem, Burr was bullish on Donald J. Trump’s chances of capturing the White House. Longtime aides and family members rolled their eyes. OK, whatever you say.
Burr had good reason to believe. The 60-year-old former appliance salesman was on the same ticket with Trump, running for his third term as a Republican from the Tar Heel State. For more than a year, Burr watched voters turn out with building intensity. In tiny places down east such as Rose Hill, Trump rallies would be scheduled for 12,000 supporters; 25,000 would show up. And the first 5,000 of them waited in line for two hours.
The crowds listened as Trump gave away the game, one Burr had spent a career playing. The Manhattan real estate developer ridiculed George W. Bush’s presidency, railed against bipartisan trade deals that closed thousands of American factories, attacked policies that favored illegal immigrants over U.S. citizens, and picked apart spymasters and their benefactors for shoddy track records and pushing a fraudulent war in Iraq.
Burr could admit some of these inconvenient facts (in 2004 he said that NAFTA was “a net loss for North Carolina”) but he resented Trump’s lambasting of the Bush family and GOP orthodoxy. He realized, though, that it was in his best interest not to make waves and to focus on winning his own race. The evidence at GOP headquarters in Forsyth County was clear: Everyone who came in asked for a Donald Trump yard sign. Every other person asked for a Donald Trump and a Richard Burr yard sign.
Burr’s campaign style harkened back to his days in sales. He would slide into his Acura and drive from place to place, spend half the day walking up and down Main Street in little towns across the state. Talk to voters, shake hands. When they asked why he wasn’t in one of the big cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, or Greensboro, Burr would answer, “That’s not where my people are.”
If Burr grew tired, he checked into a Comfort Inn. “Can I get access to the conference room?” he would ask the front desk clerk. Sometimes at two o’clock in the morning, the senator would get up out of bed and go print something he needed for the next day’s campaign schedule.
Now, in the most unpredictable campaign in modern American history, Burr seemed to be coasting to victory against a liberal state rep from Raleigh, Deborah K. Ross. As the days to the election dwindled, the man at the top of the ticket was catching tailwinds, too. Hillary Clinton’s line that Trump was a sinister, shadowy figure tied to Russian president Vladimir Putin wasn’t getting traction with voters.
On election night, Burr made his way to nearby Forsyth Country Club where his supporters gathered. Phillip Phillips’ song “Home” played over the sound system: “Hold on to me as we go/As we roll down this unfamiliar road/And although this wave is stringing us along/Just know you are not alone/’Cause I’m going to make this place your home…”
At 10:32, Burr bounded up on the podium in the dining room to celebrate victory. His supporters cheered. “Wow!” he said. “This one is better than all the rest… This is a victory for all those who have believed in me, and those who have continued to have confidence in the fact that my values match your values.”
Burr thanked his family, and quoted from a sermon delivered by his father, the late Rev. David Burr, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem from 1962 to 1986. “He said there’s always work to be done by the living and it’s our responsibility to get in on the action. He taught me to do my part. I intend to carry out my duties through this next Senate term, as I’ve tried to do to the best of my ability for the past 22 years.”
The usual GOP tropes followed. “We will not retreat in the cause of freedom”; “we have freedom coursing through our veins”; “we live in the greatest land known to mankind.” It should have been a freewheeling, relaxed night for a man who announced months earlier that this would be his final race, but Burr read from a script. He seemed uneasy.
Just as Burr said, “We don’t know what we might face in the nation ahead,” Trump was coasting to critical victories in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
“Life is and always will be a circle,” Burr continued. “People are born, they live their lives, hopefully making a difference, and then their lives come to an end and they’re replaced by a new generation.”
At 2:30 a.m., the networks declared the winner of the presidency. Chyrons spread across every channel: DONALD TRUMP ELECTED PRESIDENT. With that news, Richard Burr was forced into a decision, one that would define his character and chart a divided course for the nation.
* * *
Until 2017, when Burr became chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I hadn’t given a serious thought to his career since he got elected to the U.S. House in 1994. Why should I? For most of a decade, Burr was a standard-issue, post–Cold War GOP congressman. Ran for and won a Senate seat in 2004, focused on constituent services, reelected twice.
The idea of Burr overseeing all of the spy agencies called to mind Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene’s darkly comic 1958 novel that parodies espionage bureaucracies. Greene writes about a vacuum cleaner salesman, James Wormold, who gets approached by a British intel officer. “We must have our man in Havana, you know,” the officer says. London is setting up the Caribbean network and wants Wormold to spy for them. The salesman accepts the offer because he needs additional income to support his extravagant teenage daughter. He makes up information about Russian threats, draws diagrams of vacuum cleaners that he says are missiles, creates fake agents from names in the phone book, and then packages the reports to his spymasters. London is impressed.
If you ask former aides to name Burr’s chief accomplishment, they don’t mention his work with spy agencies. Instead, they cite things such as his maneuvering of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to benefit North Carolina. “Richard came up with the idea that if you’re going to drill off the coast, we want royalties and we want them coming in to help beach nourishment, the intercoastal waterway, and dredging,” a longtime aide says. “This made the environmentalists say, ‘Wait, we’re going to get a pile of money for this?’”
As much as I love my home state and still follow politics there, I had never heard that Richard Burr got this money coming in, or that it mattered. The media always gets things backwards or misses the real story. Other than Burr being a fellow Demon Deacon, to me he was just another D.C. Republican who sang from the same songbook that got him elected to Congress.
When Burr arrived in Washington in 1995, another Wake Forest alumnus and I met him in the bar at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. Richard ordered a beer. “Bring it in the bottle,” he told the waitress, “makes me think I’m back home.” He struck me as the personification of Tom Wolfe’s good old boy. It never occurred to me that one day Richard would become so skilled at playing the game.
He wasn’t destined for the game, the United States Senate, or the chairmanship of a committee that oversees all of America’s spies. His father was a prominent preacher and president of the Rotary Club. Burr’s most overt connection to politics was ancestral—he’s a distant relative of Aaron Burr, who for many Americans has gained notoriety as the character in Hamilton who kills Lin-Manuel Miranda in a duel. Before that, Aaron Burr was vice president under Thomas Jefferson, a fate that would cause him to become one of the most reviled figures in American history.
Richard’s dad was devoted to debunking the attacks against Aaron Burr, his ninth-generation cousin. Most of them stemmed from Jefferson’s determination to crush him because he was threatened by Burr’s appeal. Jefferson accused Burr of treason, without evidence (as we now say). Burr, he asserted, was guilty of “stoking a rebellion, deceiving and seducing honest and well-meaning citizens, under various pretenses, to engage in their various criminal enterprises.” In 1807, Jefferson had Aaron Burr arrested for “suspicious activities.” Of Burr’s guilt, Jefferson declared, “there can be no doubt.” Burr was put on trial. And acquitted twice.
“Aaron Burr has been given a bad deal,” Rev. Burr said to the Associated Press in 1987. At the time, he was president of the Aaron Burr Association. On the matter of the duel, Rev. Burr said, “Hamilton is the one who challenged Burr and Hamilton lost, obviously.” About whether Burr was a traitor, Rev. Burr said, “It’s taken some time for the real facts to surface… he was completely exonerated.”
With no proclivity for politics, Richard turned to athletics. At the R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, he played football. Burr became a star linebacker and helped take the team to a district championship where he was selected Forsyth County’s offensive player of the year in 1973. His performances caught the attention of Chuck Mills, head coach of the football team at Wake Forest University, the “Demon Deacons.” Mills signed Richard to a football grant-in-aid to play in 1974.
Going into that season, Mills told the campus newspaper, the Old Gold & Black, “We honestly feel we are on the precipice of a solid and respected football program.” To anybody who followed sports on Tobacco Road back then, there seemed to be a specter hanging over Wake Forest. In an unguarded moment on local radio discussing the upcoming football schedule, Mills alluded to it. “Saturday, September 28, will be the best Saturday of the season,” he said, “because on the 28th, we don’t have to play anybody.”
Demon Deacons are accustomed to losing in athletics. In fact, in the 71 years before Richard joined the football team, Wake had only 25 winning seasons. In Richard’s freshman year, they lost game after game. By mid-season, the Deacs were listed on the Los Angeles Times “Bottom 10” rankings.
But Richard still looked promising. At 6’2’’ and 195 pounds, he was a solid player, big and fast, who stayed banged up. (My parents were friends with another player, Solomon Everett, and we attended many games.) Richard kept moving and sustained so many injuries and scars that teammates nicknamed him “Zipper.”
* * *
There was a time when the giants of North Carolina politics, in both parties, were outraged over abuses from the national security state. Long before Sen. Sam Ervin became a folk hero for presiding over the Watergate hearings, the Democrat from Morganton led a crusade against Army spying on civilians. He was celebrated by Robert Sherrill, Washington correspondent of The Nation, for being “the closest thing we have to a Federal Ombudsman in the crusade against Big Brother.”
Sen. Jesse Helms, a staunch anticommunist, condemned FBI wiretapping and bugging as “the whole smelly mess of American politics.” In 1974, Helms said, “Bobby Kennedy tapped telephones of everybody in sight, including 38 Senators… let’s see who else has been doing it.”
In 1975, the Senate voted 82-4 to establish the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Agencies, to launch a massive investigation into allegations of wrongdoing. Members included Sen. Robert Morgan of North Carolina, a graduate of Wake Forest University Law School, who took a special interest in the probe.
Morgan said he was drawn to the inquiry when he heard how I.R.S. agents had “engaged in a lot of illegal activities” to entrap taxpayers. “I remember a case of a banker from the Bahamas being in this country and they investigated,” Morgan said. “The I.R.S. wanted some papers in his briefcase so they literally set him up with a woman in Florida, in Miami, and then got him about half drunk, and while he was drunk with the woman, they robbed his briefcase, photographed the records, and put them back.”
The committee exposed espionage on U.S. citizens, such as opening mail, listening in on phone calls, and bugging bedrooms; interference in domestic politics; harassment and character assassination of civil rights leaders, Vietnam War protesters, and radicals; and subversion of foreign governments.
In August 1975, Committee chairman Sen. Frank Church of Idaho appeared on Meet the Press to explain why the committee was vital. “In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air,” Church said. “These messages are between ships at sea, they can be between military units in the field—we have a very extensive capability of intercepting messages wherever they may be in the airwaves… no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability, to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.”
“If a dictator ever took charge in this country,” Church said, “the technological capacity that the intel community has given government could enable it to impose total tyranny and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.”
Committee members were hopeful that what they launched in 1975 would be permanent. They wanted to inspire an enduring mission of “seeing to it that all government agencies… operate within the law and under proper supervision.”
* * *
In 1978, Richard graduated with a communication degree from Wake. He emerged into a state that was the headquarters of industry—tobacco, textiles, and furniture. Cannon Mills in Kannapolis produced half of the nation’s towels and a fifth of its bed sheets. Almost 35 percent of North Carolinians worked in manufacturing, more than any other state. Rev. Burr helped Richard get a full-time position with Carswell Distributing Co., which sold appliances in the Winston-Salem area. One of his first jobs was demonstrating kerosene heaters to potential customers.
Richard purchased a house on Polo Road, near the Wake Forest campus. The place needed a lot of work, and Richard had just the man for it, an undergraduate named Tom Fetzer. They met when both were students who landed jobs at The Hub Ltd., a men’s clothing store at Hanes Mall. Soon, Fetzer learned a key fact about his friend: “Richard Burr is the tightest man you have ever met.” Richard showed Fetzer his new house and said, “If you help me fix this place up, I’ll let you live here for free.” Fetzer agreed and moved in. “I went in as his indentured servant.”
The house needed a lot of work. “There was scraping paint, painting, all kinds of stuff,” Fetzer says. “One day Richard asked me to mow the backyard. I said, ‘Alright.’ So I’m out there mowing the backyard and, all of a sudden, my legs just catch on fire. I had hit a ground wasp’s nest that he knew was there—he just didn’t know where it was. Richard stood on the screened porch and watched me to find out where it was.”
Oil prices were high during the winter of 1979 and Richard’s house had an oil furnace in it. “But he never burned a drop the whole time we lived there,” Fetzer recalls. Instead, Richard purchased a wood-burning stove from his employer, put it in the basement, and it theoretically heated the whole house. “Well, I lived in the bottom floor bedroom and I would go to bed with a sweatshirt, a stocking cap, and ski gloves. You could see your breath in my room,” Fetzer says.
During the time they lived together, Fetzer, not Burr, was the one interested in politics. That summer, a prominent Republican lawyer, Fred Hutchins, hosted a fundraiser at his residence for John P. East, a political science professor from East Carolina University. He was running to defeat Sen. Morgan in the 1980 election, the same senator who exposed the spy agencies’ wrongdoings. Fetzer was friends with Hutchins’s daughter and Hutchins asked him to bartend for the event. It was there that Fetzer met Thomas F. Ellis, the top strategist for East and Helms, who had also helped engineer Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary victory in North Carolina. “Come see us when you finish school,” Ellis told Fetzer. When classes were completed that fall, Fetzer went to Raleigh to meet Ellis and was hired for $850 a month to work in East’s campaign. In November 1980, East defeated Morgan by a little more than 10,000 votes.
For the next decade, Burr continued to work for Carswell as a salesman. He married a girl from nearby Salem College, Brooke Fauth, and they had two boys (Fetzer is godfather to their oldest son). Fetzer kept active in politics and in 1988, he challenged incumbent congressman David Price, a Democrat from the Triangle. “Even though George Bush won the presidential election I got soundly trashed,” Fetzer says.
During a Christmas visit to the Burrs following that defeat, Burr informed Fetzer he might run for Congress. “We were in his kitchen and I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, the boys are getting to be of age and I’m really worried about where this country is headed, what kind of future they’re going to have. It’s something I want to do.’ I never saw it coming,” Fetzer says. “But Richard turned out to be a natural politician.”
* * *
Between 1969 and 1975, North Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District was represented by a former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. After Watergate he was defeated by a 40-year-old mortgage banker and newspaper publisher, Stephen L. Neal, a Winston-Salem native.
I remember Neal as a centrist Democrat who was able to hold on through the Reagan and Bush landslides of the ’80s. In 1992, Burr declared against him. “We will run a campaign based on a theme of ‘It’s time to make Washington work again.’” (Has it ever?) He came to the Wake Forest campus, where I was a student, looking for support that fall. His pitch was that he was prompted to run by “lack of representation” from Neal. After a year in which the insurgent candidacies of Patrick J. Buchanan and Ross Perot revealed voter outrage toward the establishment, Burr’s anodyne message was ill-suited for the political climate.
When he spoke to a small meeting in the Benson Center that I attended, he said, “I truly believe we’re at a crossroads in America this year. America must choose between decay and prosperity. As long as our policy is anti-business… anti-growth, we are not going to change.” In addition to generic platitudes, Burr also expressed support for the line-item veto, something even Reagan couldn’t get passed despite pushing for it during his two terms.
Nobody on the national GOP level thought Burr stood a chance at winning, for good reason. Bill Clinton was running for president at the top of the Democratic ticket and Neal dismissed Burr as a “Japanese-appliance salesman.” (As a top North Carolina Democrat puts it, “At that time, Japanese products were not real welcome here in North Carolina.”) Sure enough, Burr went down to defeat.
“We thought we had a shot,” Chuck Greene says. He was just out of Wake Forest and worked as Burr’s western field director. “Actually, we didn’t do too bad. If you look at the final outcome, and it being a big Democratic year with Bill Clinton’s victory, and Steve Neal outraising us, to get to 47 percent, where we ended—we thought that was pretty good.”
For Republicans in Washington, the race put Burr on the map. As for Neal, he decided to get out while he was still ahead.
* * *
In 1994, North Carolina had a “blue moon election,” as it’s known in the state, a rarity where contests for the Senate or governor aren’t on the ballot. President Bill Clinton had grown unpopular in North Carolina and Hillary’s plan to overhaul health care had hit roadblocks. Sensing an opportunity to chalk up a win, then-House minority whip Newt Gingrich put the big GOP money behind him. Burr raised more than $600,000. For the first time since 1972, the Fifth District seemed winnable for Republicans. Neal announced his retirement and Democrats drafted state senator Alexander “Sandy” Sands as their successor to Neal.
While the GOP pushed Gingrich’s Contract with America as its nationwide theme, the biggest local issue was NAFTA. Burr declared his support for the free trade agreement and followed the party line that NAFTA would be a winner for the district. He also attacked Sands for raising his own salary while in the General Assembly. “That was technically not correct,” Sands recalls. “We voted as a legislature to adopt the budget which gives every state employee a certain percentage raise. It applies to everybody, and never went into effect until you got reelected.”
That November, Burr won with 57 percent. SALESMAN BURR HEADS TO WASHINGTON was the headline in the Charlotte Observer. There was a pullout quotation from Burr’s wife, Brooke: “He was always a leader. He was on the football team. He was in a fraternity. He never missed a Sunday at church.”
Before Burr was sworn into office, he met with his campaign strategist Paul Shumaker. “You have ten years to find a landing place for me statewide,” he said. His message to Shumaker was, I believe in term limits, and five terms is the most I am going to serve in the House. For the next few years, “We went through a process of preparing him to run statewide and building relationships,” says Shumaker.
It didn’t take Burr long to master the way people in Washington speak without saying anything. Appearing with a group of House Republicans in 1995 to announce the formation of a group called the Mainstream Conservative Alliance, Burr said the mission was “fiscal sanity.” He declared, “Solutions are bipartisan. We’ve got a long way to go in this institution, but this is the first step of one that I think will be many in the foreseeable future and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Later that fall, Burr appeared at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, the Washington Issues Seminar, moderated by Rep. Bill Hefner, an old-line Democrat and former gospel singer in the Harvesters Quartet, who represented the Eighth District. In the morning session, Hefner urged everyone to get their coffee and danish and settle in as he introduced the new congressman. “Richard’s a very articulate young man from Winston-Salem, and in just the short while that he’s been here, I’ve learned to have a great amount of respect for him.”
Burr strode to the front wearing his horizontal striped tie and congressional pin, shaking a few hands as he moved along. He joked about trying to work his way through Gingrich’s reading list. Referring to the 53 Republicans who got elected nationwide with him, Burr said, “This is not a partisan class,” even though what had happened was considered a political revolution and the first time the GOP would have control of Capitol Hill since 1952.
Before signing off, Burr acknowledged another participant in that morning’s affair, Albert R. Hunt, Jr., then the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and also a graduate of Wake Forest, class of 1965. Hunt was one of the most prominent mediocrities in all of Washington journalism, always a reliable source of useless conventional wisdom and left-wing takes. Outside the Beltway, reporters marveled at how Hunt kept his job. But Burr took a different approach. “I don’t think there’s an individual who has a better grasp of what’s happening in the city,” he said. When I heard that line, I knew Richard was well on his way to punching all the right tickets for success in D.C.
* * *
“Are you familiar with Wilkes County?” Neal Cashion, the former mayor of North Wilkesboro, asks me. He’s describing the long odds he faced in 1996 when he tried to unseat Richard Burr. “I’ve lived here all my life. Hell, when you live here and you’re a Democrat, you have to fight the weather, the devil, and the Republican Party—and just about in that damn fashion, to tell you the truth about it.” I checked, and the last Democrat to carry Wilkes County for president was Andrew Jackson, in 1832. Cashion says Governor Jim Hunt asked him to run to fill the Democratic ticket. “They needed a full slate that year,” he says.
He recalls putting some $100,000 of his own money into the race, and getting a little help from the Democratic Party, but it was impossible to persuade big business to give him a listen. Cashion called the Miller High Life plant in Rockingham County to ask if he could tour and meet the workers, and executives said, no, we’re for Richard Burr, we can’t let you in here.
“The Clinton-Gore bunch came out against tobacco so, you know, it was kind of like standing on the corner raising money,” Cashion recalls, “wishing in one hand and taking shit in the other and seeing which fills up first.”
Burr and Cashion did meet for one debate, in Winston-Salem. “I probably did a pretty good job,” Cashion says. “That was my first ever debate as any kind of a candidate. In a small-town race you don’t have that type of thing. That’s where Burr kept bragging about being a Presbyterian minister’s son. They made a video of it.”
How did you size up Richard Burr? I asked. “He was very polished, very familiar with the issues, he was in Newt Gingrich’s pocket.”
Cashion says, “I’m not a Richard Burr fan. I always thought his daddy was a nice fella. He used to come up here and preach in our church some. His son didn’t like staying a Presbyterian for one reason or another.” The Burrs now attend Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, known more for the social climbing of its members than the teachings of its reverend.
“I grew up in my grandfather’s house and my grandfather was a big Presbyterian,” Cashion says. “And you always hear about, ‘Well, we got to do this for the preacher, we’ve got to help the preacher’s son do this, we’ve got to help the preacher’s wife do that, we’ve got to help the preacher’s daughter’—always wanting to do something for the preacher’s young’uns, all the time having to take up a collection. And it made me think, Burr bragged about being a Presbyterian minister’s son and the first time he gets a chance he changes his religious affiliation to something else. I thought, damn, what a traitor. It’s the damn truth. He sucked on the Presbyterian teat for years, and then spit it out for some reason.”
With the district leaning more Republican, Burr carried 62 percent of the vote and secured his place in Washington. Neil Cashion says he’s happy these days just watching the Golf Channel.
* * *
In February 1999, a small group of businessmen who supported Burr asked him to run for governor. Shumaker talked Burr out of it by saying they were looking to protect their own business interests. “My job is to protect your interest,” Shumaker told him. “You’re not ready for this, nor is this your issue set.”
Burr stayed in Congress and, after 9/11, grew to believe that spies were the first line of defense against the jihadists. He took a spot on the House Committee on Intelligence, where he sat next to Nancy Pelosi and questioned top intelligence officials. In October 2002, he voted in favor of the war in Iraq and became a strong supporter of President George W. Bush. He began to view the FISA court and the Patriot Act as tools spies could use to beat back the terrorist threat.
When top political aides in the Bush White House went looking for potential U.S. Senate candidates to run for 2004, Burr impressed them as being someone they could rely on. (“Their main criteria were people who would do what they wanted,” says longtime North Carolina political strategist Carter Wrenn, who worked for Helms and East.) Karl Rove says he talked to the Burrs—“he does not make a political decision without his wife, Brooke, she’s very smart”—and told them that if Richard decided to run, “we’re in, money, marbles, and chalk.”
Burr never had to worry about an election again. His commitment to deal-making was viewed in the Senate as serious-mindedness and earned him plaudits from Teddy Kennedy and Harry Reid. Among GOP Senate leadership, Burr was the workhorse guy. There’s no drama with him, he’ll put his head down. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Burr turned to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the spy agencies for guidance on next steps. McConnell groomed Burr to take the place of the retiring vice chairman on the Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia (one of Burr’s close friends).
While the tobacco, textiles, and furniture industries that once filled little cities all across North Carolina closed, Burr grew to love the briefings and the collegiality with the spymasters. He even refused to condemn waterboarding. In 2013, during an interminable hearing with CIA director John Brennan, Burr joked, “I’m going to try to be brief because I notice you’re on your fourth glass of water, and I don’t want to be accused of waterboarding you.” He said he considered any effort to hold hearings on CIA torture as an attempt to smear the Bush administration. When a staffer for Sen. Dianne Feinstein discovered that the CIA was spying on committee computers, Burr didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Living in the world of espionage—“It’s what he gets up and breathes for,” says one former aide.
* * *
If Donald Trump’s trip down the escalator in 2015 revealed anything, it was that he did not belong to The Club. As Gore Vidal describes in his 1967 novel Washington, D.C., “No one was ever quite sure who belonged to The Club since members denied its existence, but everyone knew who did not belong.” Burr knew right off that Trump was not a member, nor would he ever be. This was reinforced when Trump said the espionage business was a waste of money and incompetent, insofar as they missed the end of the Cold War, 9/11, WMD, and the rise of China.
I spent a year conducting the Playboy Interview with former NSA and CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden when Trump was running for president. The last spymaster to sit for a Playboy Interview was William Colby in 1978. Colby’s more than 10,000-word interview maintained the tradition of publicly staying out of domestic politics. Hayden’s did not.
In August 2016, Hayden and other former national security officials, from the Nixon to the Bush administrations, signed an “open letter” that was publicized through every media outlet in the world. “Trump has dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” they wrote. “We are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being. None of us will vote for Donald Trump.” Trump responded by saying that people such as Hayden were the same ones who brought us the war in Iraq and allowed Americans to die in Benghazi.
Days after Trump was elected, President Obama ordered our 17 intelligence agencies to conduct an investigation and write a report about alleged Russian interference in the election. The report was released to the public on January 6, 2017. It said that all of the spy agencies were in agreement that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. Presidential election.” The document was a tool meant to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s election.
With six years remaining in his political career, Burr was in the position to correct the narrative that the election was stolen by Putin for Trump, as chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence. He refused to push back and decided that he was going to undertake the same investigation that Obama had ordered, except this time run it through the Senate committee.
A few days later, BuzzFeed published the notorious “Steele Dossier,” written by a British spy, Christopher Steele, who hated Trump and was paid by Hillary’s campaign. The document portrayed Trump as a Russian stooge cavorting with prostitutes in Moscow. Despite its lack of evidence, it circulated among top U.S. spies, who seemed to relish reading and disseminating it. Over Twitter and in person, President Trump attacked the dossier and the espionage apparatus that generated it.
This “antagonism, this taunting to the intelligence community,” as Rachel Maddow described Trump’s response, caused Hayden, Brennan, NSA director James Clapper, CIA deputy director Michael Morrell, and FBI director James Comey to double down against the president. They broadcast their antipathy for him through a myriad of channels, continued spying on Trump and his advisors, and sought to neutralize him through leaks. Their anger was telegraphed in the interview Sen. Chuck Schumer gave Rachel Maddow shortly after Trump was sworn in. “Let me tell you,” he said, “you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you… From what I am told, they are very upset with how he has treated them and talked about them.”
On March 29, 2017, I watched as Burr appeared on the podium in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery studio. He was sweating as he announced his probe. “Our mission is to earn the trust and respect of the intelligence community so they feel open and good about sharing information with us because that enables us to do our oversight job that much better,” he said.
For the next three years, Burr said he was overseeing “one of the biggest investigations that the Hill has seen in my tenure here.” He didn’t really “oversee” it. He put a longtime aide, Chris Joyner, who had also worked as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, in charge and ceded considerable authority to the committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat, of Virginia. In public, Burr bragged about the extraordinary number of witnesses he and the committee questioned. In reality, some vital witnesses never even laid eyes on Burr.
Tom (I shall disguise his real identity) got subpoenaed by Burr and Warner for “documents related to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.” Tom was ordered to appear in person at the committee or go to jail. Tom hired a lawyer, complied with Burr’s request, and appeared on Capitol Hill for what he thought was going to be an interview with Chairman Burr. “Not only did I not see Burr, but the staff played a game with me where they pretend, ‘Oh we’re so bipartisan, you won’t even be able to guess who works for whom.’ You’ve got all these people in the room with various agendas and in between questions they run outside and leak to the press. A bunch of really shitty, untalented people. In the intelligence community, they’re looked down on as losers and wannabes, people who couldn’t get into the agencies.” In the end, Tom spent close to $250,000 on lawyers and his life was ruined.
Burr and Warner released five volumes of a study that concluded that Russia did what they had been doing since the Bolshevik Revolution—though in 2016 they were so stupid they spent $100,000 on Facebook ads, some of which appeared after the election. Out of some 200 witnesses, none could swear to having any evidence that the Trump campaign colluded, conspired, or coordinated with any member of the Russian government.
While committee staff members were investigating Trump and Russia, FBI agents caught the committee’s director of security, James A. Wolfe, leaking classified and disparaging information about Trump and others close to the president to reporters, including one with whom he was having sex. (“I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else,” Wolfe texted the reporter in 2017. “I always enjoyed the way that you would pursue a story like nobody else was doing in my hallway.”) After Wolfe pled guilty to lying to the FBI and was set to be sentenced to prison, Burr, Warner, and Feinstein wrote to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and beseeched her to give Wolfe leniency. In December 2018 she sentenced Wolfe to two months in prison and fined him $7,500.
At the end of Our Man in Havana, Wormold confesses. His “intelligence” has been a scam. There is no threat. The spymasters in London need to keep this quiet. Determined to avoid embarrassment, they give Wormold an award, the Order of the British Empire, and a prestigious teaching post at headquarters.
Soon after President Trump left office in January, officials at the Department of Justice contacted Burr. For almost a year, they’d investigated him because following a private briefing from intel agencies in early 2020 regarding the coming pandemic, he liquidated his stocks. The Burrs were spared some $250,000 in losses. We won’t be charging you with any crimes, Justice officials at long last informed him.
“The case is now closed,” Burr announced in a statement. “I’m glad to hear it. My focus has been and will continue to be working for the people of North Carolina during this difficult time for our nation.”
John Meroney is contributing editor of Garden & Gun and consulting producer of the upcoming CNN Originals documentary series, The Woman Who Took Down the KKK.