Burr steps aside as Intelligence chairman as stock sale scandal grows

The decision is meant to quell distraction the scandal is bringing to the panel, he said

Senator Richard M. Burr is stepping down from the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/POOL)
Senator Richard M. Burr is stepping down from the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/POOL)
Posted May 14, 2020 at 12:32pm, Updated at 1:41pm

Sen. Richard M. Burr will step down as chairman of the Intelligence Committee pending a federal investigation into his stock trades that followed a confidential briefing on the coronavirus pandemic before the financial markets cratered.

“Senator Burr contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the pendency of the investigation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. “We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of the day tomorrow.”

The announcement comes after the Los Angeles Times reported late Wednesday night the FBI served a warrant on Burr at his Washington residence. The federal agents seized the North Carolina Republican’s cell phone to examine communications between him and his broker.

A source familiar with McConnell noted Burr will stay on the intelligence committee and said his move to step aside as chairman is “above and beyond conference rules.” 

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey temporarily left his post as top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee after he was indicted on federal corruption charges. The charges were eventually dropped by the Department of Justice after Menendez’s first trial ended in a mistrial.

Burr has not been formally charged with any wrongdoing.

Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million in his securities holdings on Feb. 13, after the panel began receiving daily coronavirus briefings, ProPublica first reported.

Additionally, NPR obtained a recording on Feb. 27 in which Burr offered a private assessment of the adverse economic impact from the coronavirus — a contrast to his more upbeat public comments.

When asked Thursday whether he exercised poor judgment regarding his stock trades in question, Burr said, “Nope.”

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“It is part of the investigation and everybody ought to let this investigation play out,” Burr said of the federal agents taking his cell phone.

Burr noted that he has been cooperating with investigators since the outset of the inquiry and his decision to step aside as Intelligence chairman is to quell the distraction the scandal is bringing to the panel.

“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,” he said.

The Times cited a U.S. law enforcement official who told the newspaper about the warrant on Burr. Burr said he will not publicly discuss the matter.

“Listen, they can publicly talk about it. I’m not going to publicly talk about it. It’s their investigation,” he said.

Alice Fisher, a lawyer from Latham & Watkins who is advising Burr, said, "As the Senator has said, he has made the decision to step aside as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee until this investigation is resolved, and to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions. When the issue arose, Senator Burr immediately asked the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct a complete review. He has also 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.”

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, is next in seniority on the Intelligence Committee. He declined to comment to reporters at the Capitol on Thursday and his spokesperson later sent out a statement. “Obviously the situation has changed over the last half hour, but since Senator Risch is on the Ethics Committee and may be asked to review these circumstances, I’m unable to share a comment with you on the situation,” Marty Cozza, a spokesperson for the Idaho Republican said.

Senators’ sales of their securities during the pandemic has lead to some enhanced attention from the media, and in some cases law enforcement, and prompted questions about whether they were using information in briefings that was not known to the public to direct such transactions.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hosted an all-senators briefing on COVID-19 with top administration health officials on Jan. 24. Additionally, the Senate Intelligence Committee was apprised on the pandemic dating to around mid-February, according to ProPublica.

What about Loeffler?

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., a member of the HELP Committee, started selling off assets on Jan. 24, the same day White House officials briefed her panel about the coronavirus. Loeffler went on to sell over $1 million in stock, according to The Daily Beast.

A spokesperson for Loeffler said she has complied with all laws. “Allegations of improper trading by Sen. Loeffler are completely false based on a political attack misrepresenting the facts to prey on the emotions of the American people as they endure the impact of a global pandemic," the spokesperson said. "No search warrant has been served on Sen Loeffler. She has followed both the letter and spirit of the law and will continue to do so."

Burr, in his capacity as chairman of the intelligence committee, played an important role in issuing a Senate report that concurred with the U.S. Intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia interfered with the 2016 election to support Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency and that the agencies' work was based on solid intelligence gathering processes. 

Ned Price, a former Obama administration national security spokesperson, said there may be more at play when it comes to the apparent differential treatment of the two by the Justice Department. He noted Burr is not running for reelection (Loeffler is up against Rep. Doug Collins in a tough primary) and that Burr has not always sided with Trump. 

“This is another clear example of President Trump — with the help of Bill Barr and the Barr Justice Department — not acting blindly when it comes to the rule of law, but actually taking precise aim at not only President Trump’s perceived adversaries, but also those who are less than cooperative with his agenda,” Price said. “And I think that Senator Burr clearly fits into that category.” 

“Kelly Loeffler has been a consistent defender, champion of president Trump and his administration. Burr has oftentimes done Trump's bidding, but hasn’t always done so,” Price added.Sen.

Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who serves as an ex-officio member on the Intelligence Committee, sold between $180,000 and $400,000 of his stock holdings on Jan. 27. That includes between $15,000 and $50,000 in Apple Inc. and PayPal Holdings Inc. each. That transaction report includes sales between $50,000 and $100,000 in Intuit Inc., Danaher Corporation and Brookfield Asset Management.
Inhofe also sold between $50,000 and $100,000 in Brookfield Asset Management on Feb. 20.

Other stock sales by senators

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s husband sold between $1 million and $5 million in Allogene Therapeutics Inc. on Feb. 18. Feinstein is a California Democrat who serves on the Intelligence panel and was previously its chairwoman.

Feinstein has been interviewed by law enforcement about the stock transactions she disclosed, according to Tom Mentzer, a spokesperson for the senator.

“Senator Feinstein was asked some basic questions by law enforcement about her husband’s stock transactions, as I think all offices in the initial story were,” Mentzer said in an email. “She was happy to voluntarily answer those questions to set the record straight and provided additional documents to show she had no involvement in her husband’s transactions. There have been no follow up actions on this issue.”

Another lawmaker, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — who is not on the Intelligence Committee but chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — sold millions in securities of Pacur LLC, a Wisconsin-based plastics company he used to run before taking office. On March 2, Johnson sold between $5 million and $25 million in the company.

Johnson has not been contacted by federal investigators regarding his stock trades, according to Ben Voelkel, a spokesperson for Johnson.

Rachel Oswald and Jim Saksa contributed to this story.