Meet Sen. Mark Warner, the ‘nerdy’ top Dem on Intelligence Committee

The Virginia senator turned reporters' questions about China and the Mueller report into a masterclass on technological supremacy and national security.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on May 9, 2019 in Washington.

Mark Warner is kind of a nerd. And that’s not just us saying it. As our guest May 9 at the Monitor Breakfast, Senator Warner used the word “nerdy” three times while walking a big table full of reporters through the implications of China’s aggressive role in the advent of 5G networks, for starters.

Mr. Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, became quite animated as he spoke. And even I, a non-techie, became engrossed in his tutorial on 5G, the “internet of things,” and artificial intelligence.

“I was in the wireless business, so I'm a little bit nerdy here and pretty obsessed,” said Virginia’s senior senator and former governor.

Mr. Warner’s enthusiasm for the subject is understandable. Before going into politics, he wasn’t just “in the wireless business”; he made a fortune as an entrepreneur in the early days of cellular technology, back in the 1980s.

The senator’s concerns about China came through loud and clear. But just as urgent were our questions about his committee’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election – the only such bipartisan effort in either house of Congress. The day before, news broke that the panel had subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr., an eye-popping development that pits the Republican-led committee against the president’s son.

The committee chair, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, is in the hot seat over this. Mr. Warner essentially defended the subpoena while declining to confirm its existence. Which led to my question: How, amid all the partisan rancor in Washington, has the committee managed to maintain harmony?

Mr. Warner didn’t hesitate: “Hard work!” he said – and a recognition of the need “to put country over partisan interests.”

Ultimately, the goal of the Senate committee’s investigation is to get to the bottom of what went wrong in 2016 with foreign interference, moreso perhaps than even the Mueller report did, and then make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The hour with Mr. Warner flew by, and he wasn’t even asked if he might jump into the 2020 presidential race. Time was when Mr. Warner was seen as a hot Democratic prospect for national office – a successful blue governor in a then-red state, back in the mid-2000s. But he never took the plunge, and now he seems happy doing his nerdy best to address the nation’s security challenges through the lens of intelligence.

The Monitor’s main coverage of the breakfast explored why U.S.-China trade talks are about more than just the balance of exports and imports. I wrote a short piece highlighting some quotable moments.

To view our breakfast with Mr. Warner, click here for the C-SPAN video.

Our next breakfast is with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on June 19. And we’ve reached out to many other prominent figures from both parties.

After a bit, it sounds as if Mr. Warner is ready for another round with our breakfast group.

“I'd love to come back and talk about domestic economics,” he said after I had thanked him for coming. “I've got a whole new theory of, can capitalism actually work in the 21st century? And I'd love to share it with you.”

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