The allegations against Sen. Richard Burr, who until last week was chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, go something like this: While he was telling his constituents that the U.S. response to this novel coronavirus was under control, he was actually selling more than a million dollars’ worth of stock. This was back in February, when most Americans were still going to work or riding trains and buses. Burr is under suspicion for insider trading because around the time he cashed out that stock, he was saying remarkably different things about the coronavirus in public and in private: He co-wrote an op-ed for Fox News saying that the Trump administration’s coronavirus response was going smoothly, but a few weeks later, privately speaking to donors and lobbyists, he warned that the coronavirus threat was serious.
Tim Mak, NPR’s Washington investigative correspondent, was one of the first reporters on this story. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Mak about the secret audio recording he unearthed that helped launch this investigation—and how much trouble Burr is really in.
Mary Harris: What are the challenges of investigating a senator like this? I imagine proving insider trading here would be difficult. As chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the briefings Burr got about the coronavirus may have been confidential. So it’s hard to know what did he know, who can know what he knew, and how that might have changed his mind about where to move his money.
Tim Mak: That’s true. But there are ways for investigators to get around that issue. For example, his communications with his family and broker are not classified. They can be obtained by investigators.
I don’t think there was an expectation that this would balloon in this way. There was no telling at the beginning of this that it would become what is essentially a criminal investigation.
Part of the reason Burr’s stock sales seem suspicious is the context in which we learned about them. You uncovered this audio of him from Feb. 27. Where’s it from? What’s happening?
In order to understand that audio, we have to put ourselves back in the mindset of what the world was like in February, this pre–coronavirus crisis era: The stock market had not crashed. We hadn’t done all these stay-at-home orders. The first person had not died in the U.S. from the virus. But on Feb. 27, Burr went to a luncheon with a group of well-connected constituents. These are business leaders in North Carolina who have lobbying firms representing them in D.C. At the luncheon, Burr says he’s worried that the coronavirus crisis will possibly become as bad as the 1918 flu pandemic.
At the time, I don’t think people were making that comparison as much.
He seemed to really have dug into this question of what the coronavirus crisis would mean for America. And he seemed to have some sort of information about how bad it would be. He warned about schools shutting down. He warned about travel being shut down. He warned that military hospitals would need to be set up in order to create beds and provide treatment to people who were sick.
All of these things, before most of the public had any inkling that this would happen. Burr never warned the public of his view on this, despite his expertise on biological threats. He never decided to put out a press release, go to a television camera, go to any of the reporters’ mics. He warned this private group of individuals, and that was pretty much it.
And a few weeks earlier, he’d co-written an op-ed for Fox News in which he basically said, You’re in great hands, the Trump administration is going to handle this coronavirus well. Then as soon as you reported that private meeting, other information started to come out about Burr’s stock trades.
There’s this legislation called the STOCK Act. It requires lawmakers to periodically disclose their stock transactions. ProPublica went through Burr’s stock transactions and realized something that I hadn’t, which is that Burr, on Feb. 13, made 33 stock transactions and sold up to $1.7 million worth of stock in a single day. And that’s just a few days after that op-ed.
How big a deal is $1.7 million worth of stock for someone like Burr?
For a senator and for someone of his age, his net worth is not particularly high compared with that of his colleagues. So this would represent a substantial portion of his assets. Remember, he has said that he’s not going to run for reelection when his term ends in 2022. So he’s presumably thinking about retirement, and he makes a move here, it appears, to secure his future.
At NPR, you teamed up with Dartmouth College to analyze Burr’s transactions. You looked at Burr’s stock sales on Feb. 13 to see how they compared with trades he’d made in the past.
Between 2012 to about 2019, Burr is a very bad stock picker. On average, if you look at his stocks six months after he purchases them, they’re down about 0.8 percent relative to other stocks in the same industry. And after a year, they’re typically down about 6 percent compared with that same benchmark.
He is kind of lousy about stock picks. He doesn’t trade in high frequencies. In a quarter he would probably make an average of 3.2 stock sales. But on Feb. 13, he made more than 30 stock sales. On a single day he does 10 times what he would normally do in a quarter. And not only that, these stock sales are amazing: incredibly well-timed, incredibly well-chosen. After they were sold, they underperformed the market by 8 percent. That means those stocks performed worse than comparable ones in that same sector between the sale and the end of March.
You wrote to the senator’s spokesperson to comment on these stocks and she wrote back, “lol.”
That’s correct. That happened. I can’t speculate why she would do that.
How does the senator defend himself and explain the stock sales?
The defense for an allegation of insider trading is to say, I didn’t use nonpublic information, I only relied on public information, information that you or I or anyone else would have. So his argument is that he made these very well-timed, precise, successful sales based only on CNBC reporting on the coronavirus.
We should say that this opened up interest in other lawmakers and how they were dealing with their own stocks. But it seems like Burr’s case is different. I wonder if you can articulate why.
There are a number of reasons why his transactions are more suspicious than those of some of the other names we’ve heard, like Sens. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and Dianne Feinstein of California. He had this enormous number of transactions in a single day. And that volume of transactions was very unusual for him. He sold a lot of stocks, up to $250,000 worth, in the hospitality sector, which, as we know, has really been hit by the coronavirus crisis. His private comments show that his personal view contradicted his public view, and his statement in response to some of this reporting showed that he personally directed the sales. Loeffler, for example, has said that she used a third party and didn’t personally direct any of her sales. So if you look at the totality of those circumstances, you realize Burr’s are far more suspicious than the others.
Burr is no longer the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee for the time being. Can you talk about the significance of that?
Burr has been a mainstay. If you talk to Democrats on the committee, you’ll find that many of them have a lot of respect for Burr and that he’s worked in a generally bipartisan way when it comes to matters of intelligence. In fact, since the 2016 election and the fallout in 2017, he’s been working across the aisle on a series of reports on Russian interference in the 2016 election and afterward. As chairman, Burr has not been super public or particularly accessible to the press. But I think, generally speaking, a lot of folks have praise for the work he’s done.
I was surprised to see this investigation move forward against a Republican senator. I’m curious if you can tease out the decision-making here, because there has been speculation about why it’s been Burr, since he was among the more bipartisan senators and was looking into Russian interference in the election. I wonder if you think that speculation is fair.
I think the answer to the question really depends on whether you think the Justice Department maintains its independence in the William Barr era: if the attorney general is working as the attorney general of the United States or as the president’s attorney general. If you think the DOJ has become hopelessly politicized, then you might have a fair question to raise about whether Burr was targeted here. You look at the history: Those close to the Trump White House are not fans of Burr because, as part of the Russia investigation, he helped approve a subpoena of Donald Trump Jr. to bring him before the committee. That was a surprising move by Burr that angered a lot of folks in the Trump orbit. Now, if you think the DOJ maintains a level of independence, you can look at the evidence and see that there’s a fair amount to suggest wrongdoing and to investigate.
I wonder if you can talk a bit about how news organizations handled the story, because it looked different if you went over to Fox News instead of NPR.
I don’t think you can understate the influence of Fox News commentary on prime time. What was remarkable to me was how quickly Tucker Carlson turned on Burr and targeted him regarding these trades. It kind of set the tone for the conservative response to this scandal—no one was lining up to defend Burr at any point. In fact, Carlson explicitly asked for Burr to resign, a remarkable demand from a Fox News host to a sitting Republican senator. That was a very important moment that I think set the tone for how folks on the right would respond to this.
I guess Burr’s defense could be, The insider information I was getting as the intel chair wasn’t that the hotel industry is going to tank—and yet he sold a lot of hospitality stock.
You don’t need to have specific information that says Marriott is going to go down. It just needs to be material and nonpublic, meaning that if you or I as a stock buyer or seller were to have that information, it would be meaningful. So if he’d received—for example, I’m not saying that he did—a briefing that outlined the number of deaths or cases of the coronavirus that were to come to America, that would have been nonpublic information. And if he’d made transactions based on that information, there is a real possibility he could be charged with insider trading.