A massive new scandal unfolded Thursday when ProPublica reported that Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina had sold as much as $1.72 million in stock holdings just before the markets tanked as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. Later that same evening, the Daily Beast reported that Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia had similarly liquidated her assets and even bought shares in a teleworking company that has seen its price tick up.
At least three other senators, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, and Georgia Republican David Perdue, also recently sold stock in large quantities, but none of the sales appear timed to have taken advantage of any possible foreknowledge of the downturn.
Burr, however, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had been receiving intelligence briefings on the threat posed by the virus and had offered reassurance to the public, even saying on Feb. 7 that "the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus."
But in private, as NPR separately reported earlier on Thursday, Burr was issuing dire alarms about the disease. "It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history," he told members of a high-priced North Carolina social club, according to a secret recording from Feb. 27. "It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic." He urged travelers to Europe to instead stay home and warned that school closures would be forthcoming—two weeks before the Trump administration or local officials took either step.
Burr, it appears, believed what he was telling wealthy donors rather than ordinary Americans: On Feb. 13, he sold a large portion of his stock portfolio in more than 30 separate transactions. That included hospitality companies like Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, whose share prices have since collapsed, saving Burr considerable sums.
After ProPublica's report came out, a Burr spokesperson's entire response was "lol." The next day, Burr did not deny that he had sold his assets because he feared the effects of the coronavirus but claimed he did so based "solely on public news reports." He also asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate his activities, but that request has done nothing to mitigate the intense political fallout.
While many public figures have called on Burr to resign, the most ominous remarks came from Burr's fellow home-state senator, Republican Thom Tillis, who issued a statement saying that Burr "owes North Carolinians an explanation" while pointedly emphasizing that his own "top priority is protecting the physical and economic health of every North Carolinian"—not making a buck off of widespread suffering. It's unusual in the extreme to see one Republican senator take another to task in this manner, but Tillis faces a difficult re-election battle this fall, and the last thing he wants is Burr tainting him.
Or maybe there's an even worse possibility for Tillis: Burr, who has already said he won't seek re-election in 2022, could be forced to resign, which would lead to a special election this fall for the final two years of his term. (Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would appoint a replacement in the interim from a list of three names provided by the state Republican Party.) Simultaneous Senate races in swing-state North Carolina would fire up Democrats even further and put Tillis' own political survival deeper in jeopardy.
Loeffler, meanwhile, also received private briefings on the pandemic as a member of the Senate Health Committee, and she, too, put out statements downplaying the risks. Late last month, she tweeted, "Democrats have dangerously and intentionally misled the American people on #Coronavirus readiness," and she was still insisting on March 10, "The consumer is strong, the economy is strong, & jobs are growing, which puts us in the best economic position to tackle #COVID19 & keep Americans safe."
Ultimately, Loeffler sold stocks worth as much as $3.1 million in 30 different transactions between the end of January and mid-February, alongside just two purchases. One of those was for a technology company called Citrix, which makes software that allows users to remotely access computing resources and has seen its share price rise recently as more and more people have begun working from home.
Loeffler, who with her husband is worth at least $500 million and is the richest member of Congress, claimed that her investment decisions are made by "third-party advisors" without her knowledge. Since she's up for election in November, and since she hasn't pissed off Donald Trump in the way Burr has, Republican knives have largely remained in their sheaths. However, her ultra-conservative rival in this fall's all-party primary, Rep. Doug Collins, tweeted on Friday, "People are losing their jobs, their businesses, their retirements, and even their lives and Kelly Loeffler is profiting off their pain? I'm sickened just thinking about it."
But whether or not Republicans like Collins and Tillis keep exerting pressure on the likes of Loeffler and Burr, Democrats are certain to keep up the attacks as the pandemic rages.