WASHINGTON (NYTIMES)- Senator Richard Burr sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock in major companies last month as President Donald Trump and others in his party were still playing down the threat presented by the coronavirus outbreak and before the stock market’s precipitous plunge.
The stocks were sold in mid-February, days after Burr, a Republican and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, wrote an opinion piece for Fox News suggesting that the United States was “better prepared than ever before” to confront the virus.
Two weeks after the sales, Burr spoke at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington to a nonpartisan group called the Tar Heel Club, warning that the virus could soon cause a major disruption in the United States.
The gathering, which drew fewer than 100 people, included representatives from the North Carolina governor’s office, as well as staff members from other congressional offices in the state.
“There’s one thing that 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 a recording obtained by NPR, which reported on his remarks on Thursday (March 19).
“It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.” He added: “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.”
Burr has long pushed for the United States to better prepare for the threat presented by pandemics, including sponsoring legislation that Congress passed in 2006 called the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act.
“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,” Caitlin Carroll, a spokesman for Burr, said in a statement. “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.”
In a series of posts on Twitter, Burr accused NPR of twisting his comments into a “tabloid-style hit piece”.
He argued that the report made him look duplicitous for sharing information at a publicly advertised event that was consistent with the message members of the Trump administration were then trying to promulgate. He did not address his stock sales.
As the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr receives regular briefings on threats to the United States, including the coronavirus. He is also a member of the Senate health committee, which in January hosted a briefing with top Trump administration officials open to all senators.
The record of Burr’s stock transaction shows that on Feb 13 he and his wife sold 33 different stocks, which were collectively worth US$628,000 (S$902,000) to US$1.7 million, according to the disclosures filed with the secretary of the Senate. Those sales include as much as US$150,000 worth of stock in two hotel chains, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and Extended Stay America. The value of both companies has declined significantly in recent weeks. He also sold as much as US$65,000 worth of stock in Park Hotels & Resorts.
Congress began requiring its members to disclose their stock sales in 2012, when it passed a law called Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which was intended to prevent lawmakers from using inside information to profit. The forms do not require lawmakers to record their actual earnings from those sales, just a range of the value of each transaction.
Details of Burr’s stock sales were first reported by ProPublica and the Center for Responsive Politics, which maintains a database of congressional stock transactions.
The sales by Burr appear to represent a significant share of his stock holdings, according to his most recent annual financial report.
The virus outbreak surfaced in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan. By mid-February, Trump was continuing to play down the threat.
“I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along,” Trump said Feb 19.
Aides to Burr said that the decision to sell the stocks was a private one, which took place long before the stock market plunged and evidence of a widespread health threat emerged in the United States.
Liberal groups quickly sought to capitalise on the sales, suggesting that Burr should give up his office and advancing unsupported claims that he may have broken the law.
“Senator Burr needs to resign immediately,” said Zach Hudson, a spokesman for American Bridge, a Democratic advocacy group. “His conduct as detailed by this report represents a gross violation of the public’s trust, and he must be held accountable for his behaviour that appears criminal.”