WASHINGTON — When Sen. Richard Burr stood and said “guilty,” there were hushed gasps in the Senate chamber. But the North Carolina Republican’s vote to convict former President Donald Trump should not have come as a shock.

In a way, he had been telegraphing his willingness to hold Trump accountable for several years.

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Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., listens during a Senate hearing Feb. 4 on the nomination of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to be labor secretary. Graeme Jennings/pool via AP, file

Months before Trump would begin falsely claiming the election had been stolen, the Senate Intelligence Committee led by Burr warned that sitting public officials should use the “absolute greatest amount of restraint and caution if they are considering publicly calling the validity of an upcoming election into question.” Such grave allegations, the committee said in February 2020, can have “significant” consequences for national security.

Explaining his vote to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, Burr returned to that theme. He said Trump “promoted unfounded conspiracy theories to cast doubt on the integrity of a free and fair election.”

There was no widespread fraud in the election, as Trump claimed falsely over several months and again to his supporters just before the riot, a fact confirmed by election officials across the country and even Trump’s then-attorney general, William Barr.

When the Capitol was attacked, Burr said in the statement, Trump “used his office to first inflame the situation instead of immediately calling for an end to the assault.”

For Burr, it was an emphatic statement after years of careful commentary about Trump, much of it made as he investigated Trump’s ties to Russia. The “guilty” vote placed him among a group of seven Republicans in the Senate – and 10 Republicans in the House – who made Trump’s second impeachment the most bipartisan in history.

With Burr retiring at the end of his term in 2022, it’s a vote that could end up defining his career.

It also came with price.

The North Carolina Republican Party unanimously voted to censure Burr in the days after the Feb. 13 vote as Republicans in the state and across the country made clear their continued loyalty to Trump.

“Wrong vote, Sen. Burr,” tweeted former Republican Rep. Mark Walker, who has already declared his Senate candidacy.

Burr declined to be interviewed for this story. But many of his GOP colleagues praised him after the vote.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who voted to acquit Trump, said after the state censure vote that Burr is a “great friend and a great senator” who had voted his conscience. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, one of the seven Republicans who voted to convict and a member of the Intelligence Committee, said Burr “is a leader, not a motormouth” who distinguished himself with bipartisan work on the committee.

A quirky, quiet politician known for his dry sense of humor, his distaste for wearing socks and for driving a 1970s-era convertible Volkswagen plastered with bumper stickers, Burr has served in Congress for almost three decades. A former Wake Forest football player and lawn equipment salesman, he was elected to the House during the Republican wave of 1994 and became close friends with Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, before Boehner became speaker.

First elected to the Senate in 2004, Burr said after his 2016 reelection that his third term would be his last – a pre-emptive retirement from politics that proved consequential.

After Trump’s victory, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrestled with how to respond to allegations of Russia’s interference in the election. With Burr not seeking another term, he was an ideal candidate to lead the politically explosive investigation.

Empowered as committee chairman, Burr gradually became a quiet check on Trump’s powers during the three-year investigation. He worked closely the top Democrat on the committee, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, as they sifted through highly classified information, some of it about Trump and his associates.

Burr kept up the partnership even as Republicans turned sharply against the investigation and followed Trump’s lead in labeling it all a “hoax.”

Warner said in an interview he thinks one of main things that guided Burr was to ensure that intelligence agencies got “the respect they deserve.” That meant pushing back on Trump, who criticized the agencies for investigating Russia and suggested they had conspired against him by undermining the 2016 election. Burr endorsed the agencies’ 2017 conclusion that Russia had interfered and favored Trump, even as Trump declined to do so.

Burr has “shown time and again he’s going to do what he thinks is right,” Warner said.

As the investigation dragged on, patience wore thin among Burr’s GOP colleagues. More than two years into the investigation, in May 2019, Burr subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son who had met with a Russian lawyer during the campaign. The backlash from Burr’s own party was swift.

Exactly a year later, as the Russia investigation was wrapping up, Burr’s time leading the committee ended abruptly.

Federal agents arrived at Burr’s Washington-area home and seized his cellphone. The Justice Department was investigating whether he had exploited advance information when he unloaded as much as $1.7 million in stocks in the days before the coronavirus outbreak caused markets to plummet. Burr denied trading on private information but stepped aside from his role on the committee.

He wasn’t cleared until almost a year later – on Jan. 19, Trump’s last full day in office.

As the impeachment process unfolded in January, Burr said very little. He sided with most Republicans in a vote to dismiss the trial, creating an expectation he’d also vote to acquit.

So when Burr stood up to vote for Trump’s conviction, many wondered if there would be other surprises. Could there be enough Republican “guilty” votes to make Trump the first president even convicted at an impeachment trial? Was Burr a bellwether?

He wasn’t. The 57-43 vote was 10 short of the needed two-thirds majority. Seven Republicans had voted to convict – but only Burr’s came with no warning.

“I do not make this decision lightly,” Burr said in a statement after the vote, “but I believe it is necessary.”


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