A look at financial records reveal that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr last month—just as he was warning big-dollar donors, but not the general public about the looming threat of the coronavirus—personal stock holdings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, many of them in industries now seriously impacted by the outbreak.
According to Open Secrets:
Burr and his wife Brooke sold between $581,000 and $1.5 million in publicly traded stocks on Feb. 13 and didn’t buy any new positions, according to a recent financial disclosure filed with the Senate.
Around the time that Burr sold his shares of major corporations, including several hard hit hotel companies, he publicly expressed confidence about the U.S. government's ability to fight the virus. However in late February, Burr privately warned that the virus is "much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history," according to a recording obtained by NPR.
Between the Burrs’ two accounts, they sold up to $150,000 worth of stock in Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, which lost almost two-thirds of its market value since Feb. 13. They sold up to $150,000 in Extended Stay America, another hotel company that lost half its value over the last month. Burr also sold between $15,001 and $50,000 of stock in Park Hotels & Resorts, which saw its stock price drop from nearly $24 to under $5. The hotel industry is asking President Donald Trump for a bailout as Americans increasingly avoid travel.
In an audio recording obtained by NPR, the North Carolina Republican was heard telling donors at a luncheon on Feb. 27 that the coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, would likely spread through the population aggressively—and suggested it could kill hundreds of thousands of people.
"It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history," Burr said.
"It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic," he added, referring to the flu pandemic which killed more than 600,000 Americans.
Just two days earlier, Trump was telling the press that the U.S. was "very close" to finding a vaccine for COVID-19 while complaining on social media that the Democrats were unfair to his administration in their criticism of his response to the outbreak.
The recording "raises questions about why Burr felt the need to keep what he knew contained," wrote Peter Wade at Rolling Stone. "Was the fear of backlash from Trump stronger than his desire to save American lives?"
A day after Burr spoke at the luncheon, the U.S. reported its first death from the coronavirus. As of Thursday, three weeks after Burr's private remarks, more than 10,000 people in the U.S. have contracted the virus, and 172 have died.
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The luncheon Burr spoke at was organized by the Tar Heel Circle, a business organization in North Carolina with membership fees ranging from $500 to $10,000. The donors he was addressing, according to NPR, contributed a total of $100,000 to his 2016 campaign.
In his remarks, the senator also warned the donors that the outbreak—officially designated a pandemic about two weeks after Burr spoke—could force schools in North Carolina and across the U.S. to close for weeks at a time and advised them to reconsider business 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," said Burr. "Why risk it?"
The warning came 13 days before the State Department issued travel restrictions for countries hard-hit by the coronavirus.
As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out, Burr did not share his warning to donors with the American people.
"To the general public," Reich tweeted, "he made no such warnings and gave no such advice."
Feb 27: Trump claimed the coronavirus was “going to disappear.”
Also Feb 27: GOP Senator Richard Burr warned wealthy constituents in a private meeting of the severity of the crisis & told them to stay home.
To the general public, he made no such warnings & gave no such advice. https://t.co/qBjCMQZYwG
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) March 19, 2020
About a week after the luncheon, on March 5, Burr struck a reassuring tone in a public statement about the virus, telling constituents, "We have a framework in place that has put us in a better position than any other country to respond to a public health threat, like the coronavirus."
Since then, the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in testing people for the coronavirus, while healthcare workers have reported dangerous shortages of ventilators and protective equipment needed to treat people with the coronavirus.
"If you paid up to $10,000 for membership and have a history of donating to Richard Burr," wrote journalist David Dayen, "you would have received significant insight about COVID-19 by Feb 27."