By The Washington Post · Michelle Ye Hee Lee, John Wagner · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, POLITICS
The sales included stocks in some of the industries that have been hardest hit by the global pandemic, including hotels and restaurants, shipping, drug manufacturing, and health care, records show.
Until about a week ago, President Donald Trump and GOP leaders had projected optimism in the country's ability to manage the global outbreak of the coronavirus.
As head of the powerful Intelligence Committee, Burr reportedly was receiving daily briefings on the threat of the virus. In mid-February, he sold 33 stocks held by him and his spouse, estimated at between $628,033 and $1.72 million, Senate financial disclosures show. It was the largest number of stocks he had sold in one day since at least 2016, records show. The Feb. 13 stock sales were first reported by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Then, at a Feb. 27 luncheon, Burr compared the potential impact of the novel coronavirus to the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. His remarks at the private event were obtained by NPR and aired Thursday.
His remarks prompted scrutiny over whether Burr had offered a more frank warning at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by North Carolina business leaders than he and his colleagues were sharing more broadly.
"There's one thing I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history," Burr said, according to the NPR recording, which was not disputed by his staff. "It's probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic."
Burr's office declined to answer specific questions about his stock sales. About a week after those sales, the stock market sharply declined.
"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," said a statement from Burr's office.
"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. He supported Congress' immediate efforts to provide $7.8 billion for response efforts and this week's bipartisan bill to provide relief for American business and . . . families," the statement said.
Federal officials are barred by federal law from using the nonpublic information they learn in their positions for their private financial gain.
Insider trading prohibitions apply to all members of Congress, congressional staff and other federal officials, under the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act of 2012. Burr was among three senators who voted against the legislation at the time.
Under the law, officials must publicly disclose stock sales within 45 days after the transaction. Though the reported date of the 33 transactions in Burr's financial disclosure is Feb. 13, it is unclear whether all the stocks were sold on that date, and Burr's office declined to clarify.
Government watchdogs said they were concerned about Burr's comments and stock sales, which they said deserve closer scrutiny and should prompt a Senate ethics investigation.
"We have huge concerns with this ethically. As a senator, he has a responsibility to his constituents first. The idea that he might be profiting off insider information is problematic," said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs of the good-government group Public Citizen.
On Feb. 7 - less than a week before the reported date of those sales - Burr played down the virus's threat, co-writing a column saying that while Americans are right to be worried, the United States was "better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration."
Even three weeks later, GOP lawmakers and Trump continued to project confidence that the virus' outbreak was being managed.
On Feb. 27, Trump publicly predicted that the coronavirus would one day disappear "like a miracle."
Yet on the same day, Burr attended the private event and warned attendees of some consequences of the coronavirus that have since materialized.
"Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel," he told the gathering, according to the NPR report. "You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they're making to Europe is essential or can be done on videoconference."
Burr's office disputed characterizations that the senator's public and private comments at the time were at odds.
"Senator Burr has been banging the drum about the importance of public health preparedness for more than 20 years," Burr spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said Thursday. "His message has always been, and continues to be, that we must be prepared to protect American lives in the event of a pandemic or bio-attack. Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus. At the same time, he has urged public officials to fully utilize every tool at their disposal in this effort."
In another statement highlighted by Burr's office, he reacted on March 3 to the first reported coronavirus case in North Carolina.
"The U.S. is in a better position than any other nation to handle a public health emergency like coronavirus," Burr said. "But Congress must continue working to make sure first responders have the resources they need and the federal government is using all the tools at its disposal to stem the problem."