The first sign of trouble came to light a couple of months ago. NPR obtained a secret recording of remarks Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) made on Feb. 27 in which he issued a dire warning about the coronavirus threat. At least at first, the North Carolina Republican was pressed to explain why he didn't offer similar warnings at the time to the public at large.
But as regular readers may recall, the story quickly evolved into a very different kind of controversy. In March, the public learned that around the time of Burr's private warnings to well-connected constituents, he also sold off some of his stock investments. Among the investments the senator sold off were shares of hotel stocks -- which, not surprisingly, were heavily affected by the pandemic.
Two months later, a senior law enforcement official confirmed to NBC News that the FBI obtained Burr's cellphone "pursuant to a search warrant, as part of an investigation of possible insider trading."
The Los Angeles Times first reported Wednesday night that federal agents obtained the cellphone belonging to Burr as part of a Justice Department investigation into the stock trades. The newspaper reported that Burr turned over his phone to agents after they served a search warrant at his Washington, D.C.-area residence, citing a law enforcement official it did not identify.
The same L.A. Times report added, "A second law enforcement official said FBI agents served a warrant in recent days on Apple to obtain information from Burr's iCloud account and said agents used data obtained from the California-based company as part of the evidence used to obtain the warrant for the senator's phone."
Time will tell what, if anything, the investigation finds, but at this point it seems fair to say the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has a real problem on his hands. Former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara noted on Twitter last night, "This is a very, very big deal. 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."
In terms of the political implications, Burr had already announced plans to retire from Congress in 2022. The more salient question is whether the senator's career will be brought to a premature end. There have been several calls for the North Carolinian's resignation -- including some blistering editorials from the Charlotte Observer -- and those calls are likely to grow louder today.
On the Hill, Burr's Republican colleagues have generally been cautious about the controversy, though in April, Sen. Thom Tillis (R) -- who's facing a tough re-election fight this year -- seemed eager to distance himself from his North Carolina colleague.
And then, of course, there's the federal law enforcement angle. Under normal circumstances, a story like this one would be taken at face value: a senator has been credibly accused of wrongdoing, so the authorities are scrutinizing the evidence. There ordinarily wouldn't be any need for additional layers of subtext or intrigue.
But with Attorney General Bill Barr and Donald Trump abusing our system of justice for political purposes, the circumstances aren't normal at all. Indeed, as problematic as Burr's actions appear to have been, it's hard not to wonder whether, and to what extent, the decisions surrounding the senator's case have been influenced by the president's political agenda.
Is it possible, for example, that Burr is facing FBI scrutiny because he recently released a report confirming that Russia attacked U.S. elections in 2016 in order to help put Trump in power?
To be sure, the question is clearly speculative, and there's nothing in the public record to connect the two seemingly unrelated stories. But therein lies the larger point: when a president and his attorney general corrupt federal law enforcement, it raises doubts that otherwise wouldn't exist and raises questions Americans shouldn't even have to ask.
Update: Burr stepped aside this morning as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.