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Senators face difficult questions after well-timed stock sales

Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr is facing calls for his resignation after lucrative stock sales ahead of the coronavirus crisis.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., talks with reporters in the Capitol on Jan. 30, 2020.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

Initially, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) had a specific kind of controversy on his hands. NPR obtained a secret recording of remarks the North Carolina Republican made on Feb. 27 in which he issued a dire warning about the coronavirus threat. Among the questions is why he didn't offer similar warnings at the time to the public at large.

But overnight, this has evolved into a different kind of controversy. There are reports that around the time of Burr's private warnings to well-connected constituents, he also sold off some of his stock investments.

ProPublica reported that Burr -- who co-wrote an op-ed for Fox News in early February saying "the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus" -- unloaded the stock around mid-February, about a week before the market started to plunge because of coronavirus concerns.

Among the investments the senator sold off were shares of hotel stocks.

As Burr faces some calls for his resignation, a spokesperson for the senator said the sales were "personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak."

Right, but that's not a great explanation. A powerful senator, with unique access to the nation's most sensitive intelligence, sold investments before the markets slid. How is that a defense?

Among the other senators facing related questions is appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.). The Daily Beast reported that the Georgia Republican "reported the first sale of stock jointly owned by her and her husband on Jan. 24, the very day that her committee, the Senate Health Committee, hosted a private, all-senators briefing from administration officials, including the CDC director and Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on the coronavirus."

Loeffler, whose husband is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, has denied any wrongdoing.