Stock sales by Sen. Richard Burr, others ignite political uproar
WASHINGTON — The nation remained fixated on the final acts of the impeachment drama in early February, but as the Senate prepared to acquit President Donald Trump, Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, already had his eye on a troubling new threat: the coronavirus.
On the morning of Feb. 4, Burr assembled members of the committee in a secure room on Capitol Hill to hear for the first time from intelligence officials about how foreign powers were responding to what the World Health Organization had days earlier declared a global health emergency.
Their warnings were not highly classified or all that specific, drawn largely from diplomatic wires and publicly reported information, according to three people familiar with them. But at a time when the White House was playing down threats from the virus, intelligence officials from the CIA painted an early picture of the outbreak’s geopolitical implications.
Around the same time, Burr, a longtime proponent of increased federal efforts to prepare for a global health pandemic, was receiving similar briefings from top government health officials through another Senate committee he sits on. Those sessions, including an update on Feb. 12, were focused on the readiness of the United States for a potential epidemic, but also touched on the possible economic fallout.
The next day, Feb. 13, Burr sold off 33 stock holdings, worth a collective $628,000 to $1.7 million, liquidating a large share of his portfolio.
Burr’s sale of the shares in the weeks before the market plunged over concerns about the economic impact of the virus at a time when Trump and other Republican officials were playing down the threat is now coming under intense scrutiny. It has also raised questions about whether he avoided losses by trading on inside information as Americans are looking to Washington for help in a severe crisis.
At least four other senators, as well as about two dozen House lawmakers, also sold some of their financial holdings in the same period. Like Burr, the other senators said they did nothing wrong and were not acting on information unavailable to the general public.
The stock sale ignited a political firestorm from both the left and the right, as calls immediately emerged for the resignation of Burr, who overnight found himself battling to avoid becoming the symbol of a financially advantaged elite at a populist moment.
Under pressure to explain himself, Burr said Friday that he had asked the Senate Ethics Committee to scrutinize the sales in an attempt to clear his name.
“Understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency,” Burr said in statement.
The four other senators — Dianne Feinstein, D-California, James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, Kelly Loeffler, R-Georgia, and David Perdue, R-Georgia — have each rejected any suggestion that they played any role in the stock sales, saying that their portfolios are managed by others and that they were perhaps not even aware the securities were being sold.
But Burr has not disputed that he was involved in the decision, nor that it was motivated by a fear that markets in the U.S. were about to decline. He said on Friday that his decision had been based “solely on public news reports” out of Asia, largely from CNBC.