The Burr-Trump Jr. subpoena dispute

Many Trump supporters are incensed at Sen. Richard Burr for issuing a subpoena for Donald Trump Jr. to return and testify before the Senate Intelligence which Burr chairs. Here are the facts relating to the subpoena, as I understand them:

The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting an intelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It is not conducting a criminal investigation, as Robert Mueller was. However, it is exploring many of the same events and actions as Mueller because they relate to Russia’s interference.

As part of its investigation, the Committee interviewed Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, among many others. It reserved the right to call both back if further investigation revealed inconsistencies in their testimony or, more generally, the need for additional questioning.

Pursuant to this understanding, the Committee called Kushner back and he testified. It also called Trump Jr. back, but apparently he balked. Hence, the subpoena.

It seems to me that Burr serves two of his interests by issuing the subpoena: furthering his Committee’s investigation and maintaining some level of bipartisanship on the Committee.

As to the first interest, it is the job of Committee members to determine which witnesses it will interview. When a witness won’t cooperate, a subpoena is the normal recourse. Otherwise, the Committee loses control over its investigation.

It’s true that Trump Jr. testified once, but an effective investigation may require that certain witnesses be recalled and, as I understand it, the Committee reserved the right to recall Trump Jr. and Kushner. As noted, Kushner did come back to answer more questions — no fuss, no muss.

The need to recall witnesses to probe discrepancies in testimony seems obvious. If Trump Jr’s testimony runs counter to evidence the Committee has since uncovered, it’s perfectly legitimate to bring him back for follow-up questioning. It would be irresponsible of the Committee not to explore, and if possible clear up, discrepancies in testimony before it writes its report.

I should also note that Burr’s Committee isn’t overstepping normal bounds. For example, unlike the House Intelligence Committee, Burr isn’t demanding anything unlawful, such as making grand jury material public. He isn’t even demanding anything unusual. He just wants Trump Jr. to answer questions.

One argument raised against the subpoena is that Mueller has already found no collusion and Majority Leader McConnell has declared the matter closed. In fact, Burr’s Committee hasn’t found evidence of collusion, and the Senator has said so.

But Trump Jr.’s testimony is relevant to the broader issue of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election, which is what Burr’s Committee is investigating. And while the issue of criminal conduct under the “collusion” rubric is closed (or should be), Burr’s broader investigation into Russian interference isn’t. Nor did McConnell say it is. To the contrary, he has said that the Committee’s work will proceed and that a report will issue soon.

There may also be a question of whether Trump Jr. testified truthfully to the Committee. If there is some question about this (and I’m not saying there is), it would certainly be legitimate for the Committee to follow up. Indeed, protecting the integrity of the Committee’s processes would seem to demand that it do so.

Barr’s other interest is in maintaining a decent level of bipartisanship on the Committee. In a well-functioning country, members of both parties would be able to cooperate on congressional intelligence committees. If there’s any subject matter less suitable to partisan wrangling, I can’t think of it.

Until fairly recently, the House Intelligence Committee was a model of bipartisanship, and the nation was better for it. Democrats, in their quest to resist President Trump, have blown that up. The House Committee is now a farce.

This hasn’t happened on the Senate side. Reportedly, every vote by the Committee so far in connection with the Russia investigation has been unanimous. As Mitch McConnell says, “this Intelligence Committee in the Senate, unlike the Intel Committee in the House, has not descended into partisan bickering; it’s been a largely bipartisan effort.”

Burr would like the bipartisanship to continue. But if he allows Trump Jr. to stiff him on testifying, it won’t. Democrats will argue that the president, not the chairman, is calling the shots. They will be right.

Burr’s interest in maintaining bipartisanship is understandable. However, standing alone, I don’t think it’s reason enough to subpoena Trump Jr.

The Democrats have declared war on President Trump. Being in the minority, Democratic Intelligence Committee members play the cooperation game, but sooner or later (and almost certainly if/when they become the majority), Burr’s good will won’t count for much. In all likelihood, the Senate Committee will follow the sad path of its counterpart on the House side, though perhaps not to the same nauseating degree.

Quite apart from considerations of bipartisanship, however, Burr’s primary interest — furthering his Committee’s investigation and not being dictated to by witnesses — justifies the subpoena to Trump Jr., in my opinion.

I hope the matter can be resolved without much difficulty, and that Mitch McConnell’s characterization of the dispute as “just a blip” will prove to be accurate.

Below, Trey Gowdy does a good job of explaining why Burr wants to reexamine Trump Jr.

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