What is it with Richard Burr?
Why did North Carolina’s senior U.S. senator shirk one chance after another to speak truth to power? Or simply to speak at all?
First, there was Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Burr’s wobbly buy-in on the widely discredited notion that it was Ukraine (not Russia) that meddled in the 2016 U.S. elections. Then there was Burr’s run-with-the-herd mentality during the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Now NPR reports that Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, told a small group of North Carolina constituents three weeks ago that he was seriously concerned about the impact of the coronavirus in the United States. “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” Burr warned at the Feb. 27 gathering of a bipartisan group called the Tar Heel Circle. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
Burr was referring to the 1918 influenza pandemic that infected roughly 500 million people, claiming at least 50 million lives, 675,000 in the U.S. alone. A person who attended the gathering supplied a recording of Burr’s comments to NPR. On the same day, Trump was striking an altogether different tone. “It’s going to disappear,” the president said of the novel coronavirus. “One day, it’s like a miracle. It will disappear.”
Trump did add that “it could get worse before it gets better.” But he was painting a decidedly more optimistic picture than Burr’s.
The Tar Heel Circle consists of companies and organizations from North Carolina that donated to Burr’s reelection campaigns in 2015 and 2016, NPR reported.
Why make such remarks only to a select group of donors? Why, if Burr truly believed the situation was so grave, didn’t he say so, more openly and forcefully, to the public — as well as to convince COVID-19 skeptics in his own party?
A spokeswoman for Burr said he “has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus.”
He could have “educated” us more. He predicted the need for tightened travel rules and the military’s help. Her predicted school closings. “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 told the group.
Burr’s comments likely were so prescient because he was one of the authors of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which lays out a plan for federal responses to outbreaks. He has made some public statements based on his expertise. For instance, in March he asked an official with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about what Burr considered to be shortcomings in the nation’s pandemic surveillance efforts. But why hasn’t he said to a broader audience what he said on Feb. 27 is deeply troubling. He isn’t running for reelection, so he has little to lose politically.
The more we know, the worse this looks. Pro-Publica reported Thursday that Burr sold about $1 million in stocks on Feb. 13 after writing a Feb. 7 op-ed saying that the U.S. was equipped to combat COVID-19. This suggests that Burr not only didn’t inform the public of his concerns but may have used the knowledge to personally benefit himself.
Which calls into question whom Burr thinks he serves in Washington: The American people or himself?