Richard Burr, the Republican senator from North Carolina, has stepped down as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee as federal investigators investigate his sale of millions of dollars in stock shortly before US markets fell in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, said on Thursday afternoon that Mr Burr had informed him earlier in the day of his “decision to step aside” from his committee chairmanship “during the pendency of the investigation”.
“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,” Mr McConnell said.
Mr Burr said in a statement: “This morning, I informed Majority Leader McConnell that I have made the decision to step aside as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee until this investigation is resolved. The work the Intelligence Committee and its members do is too important to risk hindering in any way. I believe this step is necessary to allow the committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions.”
Mr Burr has come under scrutiny since it was revealed in March that he and his wife sold up to $1.7m worth of shares on February 13 — one week before markets began falling as the global economy slowed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
When the share sales were first reported by ProPublica, Mr Burr, who also sits on the Senate health committee, said he had “relied solely on public news reports” to guide his share sales, specifically citing CNBC’s reporting on events in Asia.
But the Los Angeles Times reported late on Wednesday that the FBI had executed a warrant and seized the senator’s mobile phone as part of a probe into whether he broke the law by offloading the shares. Mr Burr’s Senate office declined to comment on the reports.
As chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Mr Burr would have access to regular briefings by US intelligence agencies, including warnings about the threat posed by coronavirus.
On January 24, the Senate health committee gave senators a coronavirus briefing from senior health officials from Donald Trump’s administration.
Mr Burr’s share sales have been criticised by Democrats and Republicans alike. Thom Tillis, the other Republican senator from North Carolina, told Hugh Hewitt, a talk radio host, on Thursday morning that Mr Burr “owes us all an explanation”.
When asked about the probe into Mr Burr’s share sales on Thursday, and whether he had spoken about the matter with the US Department of Justice, Mr Trump told reporters: “No. I never have. I didn’t know.”
“I know nothing about it. I never discussed it with anybody,” he added. “That’s too bad.”
Mr Burr is not the only US senator under pressure over share sales. Kelly Loeffler, a former Intercontinental Exchange executive who joined Congress this year after being appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat in Georgia, sold as much as $3.1m of stock in joint transactions with her husband over three weeks until February 14. Ms Loeffler is also a member of the Senate health committee.
Ms Loeffler’s Senate office said on Thursday: “Allegations of improper trading by Senator 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. 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.”
Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democratic senator from California, has also been scrutinised after her husband, Richard Blum, sold between $500,000 and $1m worth of shares in Allogene Therapeutics, a biotech stock, in January, according to congressional disclosures.
On Thursday, a spokesman for Ms Feinstein, a former chair of the Senate intelligence committee, confirmed the senator had co-operated with federal investigators looking into the matter.
“Senator Feinstein was asked some basic questions by law enforcement about her husband’s stock transactions,” the spokesman said. “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.”