Sen. Richard Burr steps aside as Senate intelligence chair amid FBI probe into stock sales
WASHINGTON — A Republican senator with access to some of the nation's top secrets became further entangled in a deepening FBI investigation as agents examining a well-timed sale of stocks during the coronavirus outbreak showed up at his home with a warrant to search his cellphone.
Hours later, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina stepped aside Thursday as chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, calling it the “best thing to do." Burr has denied wrongdoing.
“This is a distraction to the hard work of the committee and the members, and I think that the security of the country is too important to have a distraction,” Burr said. He said he would serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in 2023. He is not running for reelection.
The search warrant marked a dramatic escalation in the Justice Department’s investigation into whether Burr exploited advance information when he unloaded as much as $1.7 million in stocks in the days before the coronavirus caused markets to plummet. Such warrants require investigators to establish to a judge that probable cause exists to believe a crime has occurred.
The warrant was confirmed by two people familiar with the matter, including a senior department official. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss an ongoing investigation.
Burr faces no public accusations by the government that he exploited inside information received during briefings. But the search warrant immediately affected the standing inside Congress of the influential Republican, who has earned bipartisan support for leading a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign — work that sometimes rankled President Donald Trump and his supporters.
News of the warrant also underscored the public scrutiny surrounding the stock market activities of multiple senators and their families around the same time.
On Thursday, a spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was asked “some basic questions" by law enforcement about sales her husband made and had voluntarily answered questions.
A representative Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a new lawmaker from Georgia who records show sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock in late January and February, said no search warrant had been served on her, and that Loeffler “has followed both the letter and spirit of the law and will continue to do so.”
In Burr's case, the search warrant was served on a lawyer for him, and FBI agents went to the senator's home in the Washington area to retrieve the cellphone, the Justice Department official said. The decision to obtain the warrant was approved at the highest levels of the department, the official said.
Alice Fisher, a lawyer for Burr, noted that Burr called for an ethics inquiry into the stock sales once they were disclosed. She said Burr stepped aside as chairman “to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions" and said the senator has “been actively cooperating with the government’s inquiry, as he said he would."
“From the outset, Senator Burr has been focused on an appropriate and thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate,” Fisher said in a statement.
Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House before traveling to Pennsylvania on Thursday, said he was unaware that Burr was leaving his intelligence post.