WASHINGTON — Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr had been the rare Republican alarmed enough about Russian election interference to stand up to President Trump.
Now? Not so much.
The North Carolina senator has become the latest member of the GOP to embrace a conspiracy theory that’s convenient to Trump but has little basis in fact: that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election to defeat Trump, in the same way Russia did to boost him.
“There’s no difference in the way Russia put their finger early on in the scale for one candidate, and everybody called it meddling. Ukraine did it, it’s still meddling,” Burr told reporters Tuesday.
That’s a false equivalence between a few criticisms from Ukrainian officials and a coordinated effort by Russia to undermine American democracy. What's worse, it advances a propaganda campaign reportedly created by Russian intelligence to frame Ukraine. And Burr knows better.
His own committee investigated whether Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election as part of its probe into Russia’s extensive interference in the election and came up with very little.
That effort, which was first reported by Politico, included talking to Alexandra Chalupa, a Democratic operative at the center of the GOP conspiracy theory that the Ukrainian government actively meddled to try to take down President Trump.
A source familiar with the committee’s work tells VICE News that the GOP-controlled committee also interviewed Shawn Henry, the president of CrowdStrike. That cybersecurity company plays a starring role in the GOP conspiracy theory — and was specifically mentioned by President Trump in his now-infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
This isn’t just a one-off comment by Burr — he was defending his remarks from Monday.
“Every elected official in the Ukraine was for Hillary Clinton. Is that very different than the Russians being for Donald Trump?”
“Every elected official in the Ukraine was for Hillary Clinton. Is that very different than the Russians being for Donald Trump?” he told reporters.
Burr’s comments are striking. This isn’t just setting aside the committee’s own investigation, whose next chapter which deals with Ukraine has been completed but has yet to be cleared for public release. It also disregards the consensus view of the entire intelligence community.
Just weeks ago, intelligence officials held a briefing with senators and top staff where they said Russia had engaged in a lengthy effort to frame Ukraine for 2016 election meddling to absolve itself for the blame. Multiple government officials also publicly testified during the House Intelligence Committee’s open hearings that this argument was, as former National Security Council member Fiona Hill described it, a “fictional narrative” based on dangerous Russian propaganda.
Burr wasn’t the only Republican who put weight behind the conspiracy theory or refused to knock it down.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) has been a leading advocate of this conspiracy theory, peddling it in multiple TV appearances in recent days. He told "Fox & Friends" Tuesday morning that Ukraine’s president at the time “did try to influence our election” — comments he pointed back to when VICE News asked if he’d seen the intelligence reports showing the opposite.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) repeatedly ducked the question at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “This whole issue is a House issue,” he said, refusing to answer a follow-up question. Later, when pressed by another reporter, he said only that the matter was up to the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate.
And Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, repeatedly refused to comment on what Ukraine did in 2016. “I'm not answering any questions on that,” he said.
Trump himself has bought into that Russia-fueled theory, as it conveniently allows him to say he was the victim rather than the beneficiary of foreign interference in 2016. His attempts to extort Ukraine’s current leaders into trying to substantiate this false theory — as well as investigate former Vice President Joe Biden — are why he’s currently facing impeachment.
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) has maintained an unusually close bipartisan relationship with Burr. But he strongly disagreed with his colleague.
Warner said he hadn’t seen Burr’s comments, but he stressed there's "absolutely no equivalency” between Russia’s concerted intelligence efforts to boost Trump in 2016 and the criticism of Trump levied by a handful of Ukrainian officials.
“The only people who are advancing the discredited theory about Ukrainian intervention are part of the continuing Russian disinformation campaign,” he said.
Cover: Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., talks on his cell phone as he arrives in the Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)