The investigation into Sen. Richard Burr took a significant step forward Wednesday when the FBI reportedly seized the Republican senator from North Carolina’s cellphone as part of its insider trading inquiry into Burr’s stock trades ahead of the coronavirus tanking the stock market. The Los Angeles Times reports the FBI served Burr a warrant at his Washington-area home, where he turned over the device. The Times also reports the FBI served another warrant seeking data contained in Burr’s iCloud account from Apple. The aim of the warrants is to gain insight into the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s interactions with his stock broker.
The warrant served on a sitting U.S. senator represents a sizable escalation in the investigation into Burr’s trades; the warrants would require the signoff of senior officials at the Department of Justice and would require investigators to exhibit probable cause that a crime occurred and that the search would yield significant evidence. “This is a very, very big deal,” Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, tweeted Wednesday. “This is not something the FBI or DOJ does lightly. It requires layers of review, the blessing of a judge, and consideration of severe reputational harm to a sitting US Senator.”
The trades at issue are the 33 stocks Burr and his wife sold on Feb. 13; federal disclosures indicate the trades are worth between $628,033 and $1.72 million. On the very same day, Burr’s brother-in-law, who is a Trump administration appointee, also dumped as much as $280,000 in stock. At the time, as the head of the Intelligence Committee, Burr was reportedly receiving daily briefings on the coronavirus and escalating estimates of the damage it would do in the U.S. Burr, however, continued in February to make public statements minimizing the severity of the coming pandemic. Two weeks after the stock sale, Burr privately warned North Carolina business leaders that severe disruptions were likely coming.
Burr was not the only high-profile lawmaker to raise eyebrows with trades ahead of the market crash; newly appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia also dumped millions in stock in late February and early March. Loeffler, who has been unwavering in her flattery of Trump since being appointed to the open Senate seat this year, is not believed to be under investigation, prompting some rumblings from commentators that Burr’s treatment—when compared with Loeffler’s—exhibits early warning signs of political retribution. Burr, as the head of the Intelligence Committee, has at times sparred with the White House over the Russia investigation.