On Trump and Russia, Mark Warner emerges as the accidental investigator

Reporters surround Senate intelligence committee ranking member Sen. Mark Warner as he heads for a policy meeting in Washington on May 16. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Well, I’m not bored anymore,” Mark Warner told me when I got him on the phone this week. It’s an unusual thing for a senator to admit, that he’s often found the job to be a little pointless. But Warner’s never been coy about his abiding frustration with the Capitol.

For most of his seven-plus years in the Senate, the Virginia Democrat, once a national star, has haunted the halls like some tall and gangly ghost, a lonely specter from the time when senators imagined themselves to be above the partisan furies of the day. His entreaties to Republican colleagues, mostly rebuffed, exasperated his own party’s leaders, who barely tolerated him.

When I mentioned to Warner that there were times when he seemed to be questioning his career decisions, he actually started laughing. “You think?” he said.

Sometimes, though, if you hang around on the perimeter long enough, the action comes to you. And so it is with Warner, who somehow finds himself the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, just in time for a high-stakes, high-intrigue investigation into the executive branch that raises eerie parallels to Watergate.

Even as Warner and I talked, news was breaking that Michael Flynn, the president’s favorite disgraced former general, had decided not to cooperate with the committee’s subpoena. Within hours, Warner and the Republican chairman, North Carolina’s Richard Burr, would jointly decide to issue more subpoenas aimed at Flynn’s companies — no small act of escalation.

There are multiple investigations, of course, into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian spies. But with the special counsel’s criminal probe walled off in secrecy, and with the House intelligence committee burdened by blatant (and sometimes weird) partisanship, the Senate’s effort looks like the best hope for a broadly accepted, public accounting of how all this came about.

Now, instead of haunting the halls, Warner is trailed by packs of iPhone-wielding reporters. And if you ask me, the consensus-building instincts that once made him a walking anachronism are exactly what the moment demands.

“I can’t imagine almost anything that would be worse at this point than to have totally divergent conclusions,” Warner told me. “If you had a Democratic conclusion that said there was a smoking gun, and you had a Republican conclusion that said there was no there there, with the tension that’s in the country right now? I don’t know what that would do, other than cause more chaos, which is what the Russians wanted.

“The only person who would be happy with a truly partisan split here,” Warner said, “is Vladimir Putin.”

To really understand what Warner is doing, it helps to go all the way back to the legend of his governor’s race in 2001, which is when I first spent time with him. Warner’s résumé to that point — telecom millionaire, state Democratic chairman — made him an unlikely choice for a state that had just voted handily for George W. Bush.

Warner went again and again to southwestern Virginia, to coal towns and gun shows and a massive fiddler festival. When he won the race that November, national Democrats hailed him as a model. The lesson they took away was that Democrats actually could win in rural areas if they just pretended to like guns and fiddles.

They missed the point. Warner didn’t show up pretending to be anything he wasn’t; he just showed up, relentlessly and shamelessly, without evincing any of the fear of rejection that normal humans might experience.

Somewhere along the line, Warner had picked up the conviction that if he met you enough times, he could make you trust him. He had a confidence I’d rarely seen in politics — and haven’t seen much since – in his ability to win over people who weren’t supposed to like him.

It worked for him as a governor, too. Warner’s early efforts to befriend leaders of a Republican-dominated Legislature ended in what most people would have considered failure, or even humiliation. He kept at it, ultimately managing to enact wholesale reform of the tax code, among other things.

By the time he left office in 2005 (Virginia’s governors, for some boneheaded reason, get only one term), Warner was the most popular governor in the country and an oft-mentioned contender for president.

(I wrote about him again during this period for the New York Times Magazine, although all anyone really remembers of that long profile is the strange, color-manipulated photo, which Warner still likes to say doomed his brief campaign.)

In fact, what doomed Warner then was something more ominous; winds were shifting in American politics, and new, Web-driven communities of activists were taking charge of the left.

Bipartisanship and glad-handing were out. Party loyalty and ideological fealty were in.

Warner got himself elected to the Senate in 2008, but when I saw him next he seemed vaguely disoriented, sort of like Bill Murray’s character in “Lost in Translation.” “I thought my place would be hammering out a bunch of deals or a tax reform deal,” Warner told me this week. No one was doing that kind of deal anymore.

Warner hurled himself into debt reform, forging a bipartisan coalition whose ideas went nowhere. For the last year, he’s devoted most of his energy to coming up with a badly needed agenda for the “gig economy.” Chances are you haven’t heard about it.

Meanwhile, Warner won reelection by a shockingly thin margin — Virginia, alas, has become as inflexibly partisan as everyplace else — and found himself eclipsed on the national stage by his onetime protégé, Tim Kaine.

If there were going to be a vehicle for Warner’s reclamation, the Intel Committee, as it’s known, wouldn’t have seemed very likely. Throughout the Obama years, as the committee fought with intelligence agencies and wrestled internally over its mammoth investigation into American torture, Warner served without much distinction, crowded out by Democratic colleagues like Ron Wyden and Sheldon Whitehouse.

But through the arcane pinball game of Senate seniority, Warner bounced into the vice chairman’s spot this year. And within weeks, the committee was at the center of the bizarre, unfolding saga of the Siberian Candidate – a scandal that started as a tangle of questions about whether Trump aides might have colluded with Russian agents, but which has now led to the firing of the FBI director and allegations that the president has tried to strong-arm his own intelligence chiefs.

Warner and Burr knew each other mostly because they were both close to Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican who retired in 2015. But that — along with the trivial fact that Burr was born in Charlottesville, which is just the kind of local connection Warner loves to seize on — gave Warner enough of an opening to press himself on Burr in the same way he once openly courted legislators in Virginia.

“He likes to make it sound like I’m the first person to bug him in the morning and the last person to let him go at night,” Warner told me. “But you know, if you don’t want to be called, don’t give me your cellphone number.”

If you listen to insiders and read between the lines of Warner’s half-joke about the cellphone, you get the sense that Burr has tried to deflect him at times, as much with silence as outright disagreement. “We both went through some bumps,” is how Warner puts it.

And yet, at least to this point, the two have taken every significant step in unison. They’re bearing down on Flynn while also compelling the cooperation of other Trump aides and preparing to hear testimony from the former FBI director, James Comey.

“We have to recognize that he’s under some pressure, just as I’m under enormous pressure,” Warner said. “You’ve got 50, 60 percent of Republicans who want this to go away, and you have 60, 70 percent of Democrats who think the president’s guilty of something.

“And I think over the last few weeks, as we’ve both had incoming, the relationship has gotten stronger.”

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In fact, Warner finds himself in the familiar place of being judged insufficiently loyal in his own party — or, worse, pathetically gullible. Democratic senators and senior aides have raised a series of concerns about the scope and capacity of the investigation, some of which seem valid from the outside.

They worry that Warner, in his passion for consensus above conflict, hasn’t insisted that the investigation look at Trump’s personal financial ties to Russia. And also that the committee’s paltry staff level – now up to nine, compared with scores of aides who worked on the Benghazi investigation in the House, and not including any Russia experts — signals a lack of seriousness.

“All right, I hear that,” Warner told me, when I raised the criticism. “And time will tell. I don’t accept those characterizations.” He says the committee is getting “unprecedented access to information from the intel community, in particular, that’s never been granted before.”

But as part of the agreement brokered to get that material, Warner acknowledged, he and Burr had to limit the number of staff who had clearance to view it. (He left open the possibility that they could renegotiate that agreement.) He vowed that he and Burr would expand the scope of the investigation as needed, depending on whatever “credible information” comes through the door.

The central question here, of course, isn’t so much whether Warner is genuine about his commitment, but whether Burr actually shares it. Or, to put it another way, has Burr managed to co-opt his partner into running a shallow investigation that will ultimately please the White House?

Burr is a tobacco-spitting politician who finds himself at a similar crossroads as Warner; a longtime salesman of lawn equipment before running for Congress 25 years ago, he’s among the former House members who brought with them to the Senate a more predictable, if more understated, kind of partisan instinct.

Nothing about Burr suggests that he would relish the opportunity to be in the middle of a national crisis, arrayed against a president of his own party and its congressional leadership.

When I talked to Burr this week, he cited the Flynn subpoenas as proof that he’s not about to be rolled by his fellow Republicans. “I’d only ask you to judge me based upon what I’ve done to date,” he told me.

“We were pretty quick out of the chute to serve three subpoenas now on Gen. Flynn. Not my preference. But I will go to any lengths I need to encourage somebody to share their story.”

But when I asked Burr about the importance of avoiding a split decision in the committee (what Warner had called the worst imaginable outcome for the country), he surprised me.

“Even if Mark looks at the facts and comes to a different conclusion than I do, but the American people get an opportunity to evaluate the facts, I feel like we will have succeeded,” Burr told me. “I’m less concerned with how this ends. I’m more concerned that we get the investigation completed.”

This is a significant difference between the two men, and it represents the gravest danger not just to the committee’s investigation, but to Warner’s political balancing act.

If Burr isn’t set on reaching a consensus, and if he’s instead perfectly happy to let dueling factions of the committee settle on different conclusions, then Warner may ultimately have to choose between the united front he’s working so hard to preserve, on one hand, and his Democratic colleagues on the other. It would not be an enviable choice.

I can see how you might contemplate all this and decide that Warner’s just being naïve. I could probably walk a mile in the capital these days and not run into a single person who thinks bipartisan cooperation is possible anymore, or even desirable. Fine.

But maybe that’s why Warner is exactly the kind of accidental investigator the country needs.

After all, if you go back through ugliest chapters in 20th century American politics — McCarthyism, Vietnam, Watergate — you’ll find that it wasn’t the sharpest, most partisan critics who finally brought the public around to the truth. It was the more sober, independent voice of a Joseph Nye Welch or a William Fulbright or a Sam Ervin, people who couldn’t easily be accused of protecting those in power or trying to ruin them for sport.

In his unflagging drive for consensus, Warner may be the closest thing we have to that kind of presence in the swirl of investigations that now engulf the capital.

It’s not the role in history he imagined when he got here eight years ago, looking to hammer out deals.

Sometimes, history finds you.

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