The premonition came in a Winston-Salem conference room, on an otherwise happy election night in 2004, before Richard M. Burr of North Carolina had even declared victory in his bid to join the Senate. News outlets had begun calling the race. A watch party was waiting for him. But his mind was elsewhere, at least for a moment. “He said, ‘I hope they don’t put me on the Intelligence Committee,’” recalled Paul Shumaker, a top strategist for Mr. Burr who sat with him to follow the returns. “‘It’s hard enough to sleep at night the way it is.’” Mr. Burr’s present sleep habits are unknown, particularly as he tiptoes at last toward criticism of a president he had generally praised — until the firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director. This much is less ambiguous: Now the committee’s chairman as it investigates ties between President Trump’s associates and Russia, the unobtrusive Mr. Burr is shrugging into a spotlight he never expected and does not especially seem to relish.
The senator’s thorny position — a Republican lawmaker investigating the Republican president, whom he embraced last year on the campaign trail in his own re-election bid — has grown more trying by the day.
Mr. Burr, 61, has watched a fellow Republican, Representative Devin Nunes of California, fumble the House Intelligence Committee inquiry, raising the stakes for a Senate panel that many view as the only credible chance to hold the administration to account on Capitol Hill.
The senator has emerged, whether he likes it or not, as the lawmaker who might well be burdened with undermining not only a president he has supported vocally but the entire G.O.P. in a period of unified rule, championing an inquiry that could consume what was supposed to be a period of conservative policy feats. His supporters insist he is beholden to no one, noting his pledge last year never to seek office again after his re-election.