Just a few weeks before telling wealthy constituents in private that the global spread of the coronavirus would be “akin to the 1918 pandemic” and while he was in a position to receive briefings from intelligence agencies on the matter, Senate Intelligence Committee chair and Republican Senator Richard Burr sold off between $582,029 and $1.56 million in stock, ProPublica reported on Thursday.
On Feb. 7, 2020, Burr co-authored an op-ed for Fox News saying the U.S. was “better prepared than ever before” for emerging public health threats like the coronavirus, adding “we are not only ready to face the coronavirus today but new public health threats in the future.” On Feb. 13, 2020, when the coronavirus was beginning to spread from China and a few weeks before a Reuters report said Burr had been receiving “daily briefings,” Senate disclosure forms show that the senator dumped the stock.
Global financial markets already shaken by the virus began their current tailspin about a week later, with the Dow and S&P 500 both reporting losses of about 30 percent since an all-time high in February. According to ProPublica, the sell-off was Burr’s “largest stock selling day of at least the past 14 months” and included $150,000 in shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and $100,000 in shares of hospitality chain Extended Stay America, both of which have suffered even more catastrophic losses.
By Feb. 27, when Donald Trump was still reassuring the public the virus would “disappear,” Burr was speaking to the Tar Heel Circle, a group of well-connected North Carolina businessmen and others, including many individuals who had donated to his campaign. Per a recording obtained by NPR, Burr told attendees that the situation would be dire, that they should reconsider travel plans, and that the U.S. military may need to be called in (as it has been just this week to prepare for an expected surge of cases in New York and other hard-hit regions).
“There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” Burr told the Tar Heel Circle group. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
Elsewhere, Burr said, “Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they’re making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference. Why risk it?”
Later, he added: “… We’re going to send a military hospital there; it’s going to be in tents and going to be set up on the ground somewhere. It’s going to be a decision the president and [Department of Defense] make. And we’re going to have medical professionals supplemented by local staff to treat the people that need treatment.”
According to ProPublica, Roll Call estimated Burr’s net wealth at $1.7 million in 2018, meaning that the stock movements likely comprised a major chunk and perhaps the vast majority of his financial holdings. Curiously, Barr was one of the three senators who voted against a since-passed bill, the STOCK Act, which prohibits members of Congress from using their positions to profit from nonpublic information.
Burr’s office says all of this is just a happy little coincidence and not, speaking hypothetically, an egregious abuse of power designed to shield the senator from financial consequences when potentially millions of Americans would fall ill and the economy would hit a recession or worse.
“Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak,” the spokesman told ProPublica. “As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy.”
As of early Thursday evening, nearly 12,000 people have been confirmed to have caught the virus in the U.S. across all 50 states, DC, and overseas U.S. territories, while 179 have died, according to the New York Times tracker. The real number of cases could be exponentially higher, as the federal government botched efforts to test for the virus and many people who are infected may have only minor symptoms.