U.S. Sen. Richard Burr told members of a well-connected private group that the novel coronavirus would have dire effects on the U.S. economy and population, likening it to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that left millions dead, according to a secret recording obtained by NPR.
Also on Thursday, ProPublica reported that Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks on Feb. 13, including in the hotel and hospitality industry.
The trading occurred six days after Burr co-wrote an op-ed piece saying America had tools in place to combat COVID-19 and seven days before the first major decline in the stock market.
Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned about the dangers of COVID-19 on Feb. 27 — the same day President Donald Trump downplayed the virus.
The audience was identified by NPR as the Tar Heel Circle, a nonpartisan group comprised of business leaders and entities. A membership in the group costs between $500 and $10,000 and the group claims on its website to offer “interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration and the private sector.”
Burr told the audience that “there’s one thing I can tell you about this, it is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history.”
“It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic” that had 675,000 deaths in the U.S. and 50 million worldwide.
Trump said that day of COVID-19: “it’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle. It will disappear. It could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens.”
Burr’s comments carry significant weight in part because he is author of the federal Pandemic All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2006.
On Thursday, Burr spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said that “Senator Burr has been banging the drum about the importance of public health preparedness for more than 20 years.”
She did not respond when asked about why Burr offered a stark COVID-19 warning in private, but hasn’t made similar comments to the public.
Hospitality stock sales
ProPublica reported Burr sold a large portion of his stock portfolio Feb. 13. The assets come from accounts that are held by Burr, his spouse or are jointly held.
Periodic financial disclosures are required to be submitted by U.S. senators.
Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings in 33 separate transactions. The publication Roll Call has listed his net worth at $1.7 million as of 2018.
Burr made his first statement on his Senate website about coronavirus in a Feb. 7 op-ed piece written with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health committee. At that time, there were 15 identified cases in the U.S.
“Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak,” Carroll said.
“As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy.”
The reporting documents showed some of the stock Burr sold on Feb. 13 included separate transactions valued at between $15,001 and $50,000, and between $50,001 and $100,000 of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts.
On Feb. 4, Burr bought between $1,000 and $15,000 worth of stock in Extended Stay America, but also sold stock valued between $15,001 and $50,000 that same day.
On Feb. 13, Burr sold in separate transactions Extended Stay America stock worth between $15,001 and $50,000, and between $50,001 and $100,000.
Other companies whose stock Burr sold Feb. 13 in the range of $50,001 and $100,000 were biopharmaceutical company AbbVie Inc., automobile coatings company Axatla Coatings Systems Ltd., telecommunications company Centurylink Inc., insurer Everest RE Group Ltd., and alcoholic beverages manufacturer Constellation Brands Inc, Class A shares.
Multiple media outlets said there is no evidence that Burr sold the stock on the basis of any insider information gained from his chairmanship.
CNN reported that Congress passed the Stock Act in 2012, which made it illegal for lawmakers to use inside information for financial benefit. Burr was one of three Republican senators to vote against the bill.
‘Putting lives at risk’
On Twitter, Burr was accused of “putting American lives at risk to maintain allegiance to Trump,” because he didn’t make his warnings about COVID-19 publicly.
Scott Huffman, Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, said in a tweet: “Shame on you for not stepping up and sounding the alarm so we could have started preparing then.”
Burr’s comments to the group came 13 days before the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to Europe and 15 days before the president banned European travelers, according to NPR.
“Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel,” Burr said on the recording.
“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. Why risk it?” Burr said.
NPR also pointed out that 16 days before Gov. Roy Cooper ordered March 14 the closing of schools due to COVID-19, Burr warned the audience of that likelihood.
“There will be, I’m sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, ‘Let’s close schools for two weeks. Everybody stay home,’” he said.
Burr also spoke about requiring the assistance of military hospitals to handle a potential surge in COVID-19 cases.
‘U.S. in better position’
Alexander and Burr said in the op-ed that “thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health committee, Congress and the Trump Administration.”
“The work of Congress and the administration has allowed U.S. public health officials to move swiftly and decisively in the last few weeks,” including that the “CDC has developed a diagnostic test that detects coronavirus infections and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is prepared to expedite its review.”
Burr issued a statement March 3, when the first COVID-19 case was disclosed by state health officials, in which he said “the U.S. is in a better position than any other nation to handle a public health emergency like coronavirus.”
Carroll said Thursday that Burr’s message “has always been, and continues to be, that we must be prepared to protect American lives in the event of a pandemic or bio-attack.”
“Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus.”
“At the same time, he has urged public officials to fully utilize every tool at their disposal in this effort. Every American should take this threat seriously and should follow the latest guidelines from the CDC and state officials.”