There are actually two moral offenses here. The first is concealing from the public the magnitude of the crisis. Privately sharing with political insiders the extent of the impending pandemic — as is alleged against Burr, though he disputed the allegations on Twitter as a “tabloid-style hit piece” — might be evidence that he knew things were far worse than what he was telling the public.
The second moral offense is profiting off of it. Anyone in public office who had access to the sort of briefing Burr and others received should immediately disclose their stock transactions before the market crashed. House and Senate Democrats should insist this be part of the stimulus bill. We need to know everyone in the executive and legislative branch who cashed in. As Carlson said, they should then all be forced to resign and answer questions from investigators. (Burr, for his part, denied that he did cash in, noting in a statement to The Post that he “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.” And former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti explains that the federal crime of insider trading requires specific criteria be met, including whether the information was, in fact, not public.)
The first moral crime raised by Burr’s situation, however, has nothing to do with the stock sale. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who made similar sales, insists she does “not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.” If so (and if she did not tell her advisers generically to sell and sell fast), she might have an airtight defense against possible insider-trading allegations.
Even still, she and many others were briefed on the peril and told the public a far different story:
She remained quiet as the president insisted the media had cooked up a “hoax.” She did not stand out among her fellow Republicans by warning private businesses or health-care providers to prepare. She lulled her constituents into a false sense of security. To paraphrase Carlson, many would consider that she “betrayed her country” to bolster the president.
But wait. What did Trump know, and when did he know it? Are we to believe that senators were receiving hair-raising briefings on the magnitude of the impending pandemic but that Trump was not? That’s not a rhetorical question. Trump is so averse to negative information he might have been kept in the dark by his own advisers. As frightening and irresponsible as it might be, he might be getting all his information from Fox News, which is nothing more than state TV reflecting his own biases and conspiracy theories. (Disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor.)
On Feb. 7 — less than a week before the reported date of those sales — Burr played down the virus’s threat, co-writing a column saying that while Americans are right to be worried, the United States was “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.”Even three weeks later, GOP lawmakers and Trump continued to project confidence that the virus’s outbreak was being managed.On Feb. 27, Trump publicly predicted that the coronavirus would one day disappear “like a miracle.”
If Trump got no briefings telling him otherwise and believed the gibberish spouted by Fox News, he is the most negligent and incompetent president in history. However, if he knew otherwise — if he knew that the pandemic was coming and would have devastating consequences — then he betrayed his country in some futile attempt to keep the stock market pumped up for as long as possible. (Yes, this would be illogical because eventually the market would crash, but remember that Trump’s thinking is extremely short-term, focusing on whatever gets him through today’s news cycle.)
The question of moral culpability is one reason the timidity of members of the White House press corps is so maddening. They need to ask over and over again: When were you told about the extent of the pandemic? When did advisers first inform you of the health and economic crisis about to hit? Then, they can investigate whether his answer is true. By the way, Trump’s insistence that he knew it was a pandemic before others were calling it a pandemic might be a lie, his usual self-puffery; alternatively, it might be evidence that he intentionally misled the public by playing down the threat.
The central political and moral issue raised by the virus — perhaps even more devastating than an attempt to enlist a foreign government to investigate a political foe — is whether the president intentionally misled the country, thereby preventing the sort of preparation that could have saved thousands, if not millions, of lives. Anyone who would do that would be an immoral monster.