Impeachment vote becomes defining moment for GOP senator

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FILE - In this Feb. 12, 2021, file photo Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington on the fourth day of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. Of the seven Republicans, Burrs vote to convict Trump was the most unexpected in the moment, and there were gasps in the chamber as he stood up declared his position. 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. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

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.

Months before Trump would begin falsely claiming that the November election had been stolen from him, 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.