WASHINGTON – After winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2012, Martin Heinrich was contemplating possible committee assignments when he got a phone call from then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The longtime Nevada Democratic power broker had good news. He planned to grant Heinrich a plum assignment on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The powerful perch would give the freshman Democratic senator from New Mexico immediate influence on an array of issues critical to his state.
But Reid wasn’t done. He also notified Heinrich that he’d be serving on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – commonly known as the Senate intel committee – that dwelled in shadowy subject areas in which Heinrich had little experience.
“Before I could say anything, he hung up,” Heinrich said, recalling the moment with a big belly laugh during a recent Journal interview in his Capitol Hill office.
In the five years since receiving Reid’s surprise phone call, Heinrich has morphed from national intelligence neophyte into one of the highest-profile members of the Senate committee.
The typically secretive panel was thrust into the national spotlight over the summer as it investigated allegations of collusion between the Russian government and President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Throughout the Senate inquiry, few on the panel have garnered as much notice in both traditional and social media for their questioning as the junior senator from New Mexico.
In May, Heinrich was interviewed on multiple cable networks after his grilling of Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe led the law enforcement official to declare that rank-and-file FBI agents had great confidence in James Comey. That testimony contradicted Trump, who had fired Comey as the agency’s director weeks before, citing in part poor morale at the FBI.
A month later, mainstream media and social media lit up again when Heinrich questioned a tight-lipped Attorney General Jeff Sessions about possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. Exasperated with Sessions’ evasion, Heinrich accused the former senator from Alabama of “impeding this investigation.”
The testy exchange prompted Princeton University history professor Kevin M. Kruse to dub Heinrich’s strategic questioning “the Heinrich maneuver” in a Twitter quip that generated almost 500 retweets. Heinrich’s high-profile moment in the media glare even had some rank-and-file Democrats, who are searching for their next presidential candidate, tweeting about “Heinrich in 2020.”
As Congress returns from its August recess on Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will once again be in the spotlight as its chairman, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, aims to wrap up the panel’s work on the Russia inquiry, possibly by year’s end. Burr told the Journal on Friday that he hopes to make a conclusive report available to the American public as soon as possible.
“We continue to go wherever there is intelligence that suggests we need to look,” Burr said in a telephone interview. “It’s my aspirational goal to have everything wrapped up by the end of the year, but that’s making a big assumption.”
In the Journal interview, Heinrich said he spent his first couple of years on the intelligence committee listening and learning as much as he could about the 17 agencies and offices that make up the U.S. intelligence enterprise.
He first made a splash on the panel in 2014 as it delved into the controversial National Security Agency wiretapping program and raised questions about Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. But the Russia investigation is where Heinrich seems to have made his mark.
“It has been appropriate and necessary to have these hearings in a public setting, whereas usually on intel you need it in a closed setting,” Heinrich said, explaining why he thinks his questioning received so much attention. “That opened a door that simply wasn’t there before. The thing I have learned from watching my colleagues, including people like (Republican) Sen. Lindsay Graham, who is a very effective questioner, and others that are good at that skill, is to not just take a stack of questions your staff gives you and ask those, and spend the first four minutes talking about yourself.
“You need to pay attention to what they say in their testimony, pay attention to what they say to other members and ask the questions that you think the public would want to know,” he added.
Although some Republicans have grumbled about Heinrich and other intelligence committee Democrats inflating the Russia inquiry into a television drama with the aim of tarnishing Trump, few contacted by the Journal were willing to do so on the record.
Privately, GOP strategists looking ahead to the 2018 election cycle concede they aren’t sure where the Russia inquiry will end up and say they’d rather not discuss the matter publicly at all until special counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate and House intelligence committees exonerate Trump and his campaign associates.
A spokesman for Mick Rich, a Republican Albuquerque contractor who hopes to secure the GOP nomination and challenge Heinrich for the New Mexico Senate seat in 2018, suggested that the Russia probe isn’t important to New Mexicans. A Quinnipiac University Poll released in early June found that while 63 percent of American voters believe Moscow interfered in the 2016 election, nearly two-thirds of respondents to Harvard-Harris Poll said investigations into Trump and Russia are hurting the country.
“While Mick Rich crisscrosses New Mexico listening to working people’s concerns about the economy, jobs, and their children’s futures, Martin Heinrich continues his career of political grandstanding on issues that don’t affect New Mexicans at all,” said Nathan James, Rich’s campaign spokesman.
Heinrich argues that his work on the intelligence committee is important to the nation and does not diminish the work he does in behalf of New Mexico.
Burr told the Journal that Heinrich, a mechanical engineer by training, “is our tech guy” on the intelligence committee. The chairman said that the panel is historically nonpartisan and that he hasn’t viewed Heinrich as using the panel to score political points during the Russia probe.
“He is extremely smart, and having his understanding of … complicated issues (helps), certainly now looking forward, as he is able to distill that in a way that the rest of the members can understand,” Burr said. “He’s fully engaged; he’s a hard worker and is a tremendous asset to the overall committee’s work.”
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, sits next to Heinrich in Senate intelligence committee hearings. King called the Russia inquiry “quite possibly the most important work of my life” and said he is proud to share space on the committee dais with Heinrich.
“I’ve had a chance to work really closely with him,” King told the Journal. “It may be his engineering background, but he really homes in on the details and asks the right questions. He’s well-prepared, and I have found him to be a really thoughtful, solid, common-sense guy.”
For his part, Heinrich said he plans to keep “following the facts” in the Russia inquiry when Congress reconvenes this week. He said he worries that people underestimate Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he said wants to erase any democratic progress Russia has made since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He called Putin an “incredibly aggressive adversary” who is willing to disrupt U.S. elections and more to weaken to world’s last superpower.
“It would be a mistake to underestimate him as an adversary,” Heinrich said. “He is willing to blur every line to be more influential in the world. There aren’t a lot of limits to what Vladimir Putin is willing to do. So as a country, I think just having that conversation in the public and making people realize what is at stake is a very important part of this.”