Now the focus is shifting to what Republican elected officials knew and when — which means the stain of this story may now spread to the GOP writ large.
That’s the immediate significance of the stunning news that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) dumped a large share of his stocks last month.
The revelations raise questions about whether private briefings that Burr, the chair of the Intelligence Committee, received from Trump officials about the scale of the threat might have influenced the financial move. As The Post summarizes:
Burr reportedly was receiving daily briefings on the threat of the virus. In mid-February, he sold 33 stocks held by him and his spouse, estimated at between $628,033 and $1.72 million, Senate financial disclosures show. It was the largest number of stocks he had sold in one day since at least 2016, records show.
Making this potentially worse, that same month, Burr privately advised a group of well-connected players that the coronavirus threat was very alarming — “akin to the 1918 pandemic” — even as Trump was publicly downplaying it.
Meanwhile, similar revelations are now ensnaring Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who also dumped stocks worth millions not long after she and other senators were briefed by administration officials on the coronavirus threat. Loeffler is claiming such decisions are made by a third party.
Here are three takeaways:
Burr’s ‘defense’ actually indicts Trump. One of Burr’s claims in his and Trump’s defense is that it’s unfair to claim daylight between Burr’s private warnings about the coronavirus and Trump’s downplaying of it.
Burr is pointing to a briefing that Trump and administration officials gave in late February, suggesting that this showed that they warned Americans about the need to “begin making plans” for serious inconveniences to come.
But that very same briefing from Trump and his officials actually shows them vastly downplaying the threat and vastly inflating the success of their own efforts.
In it, Trump declared that their strategy was already having “tremendous success, beyond what people thought.” And multiple other officials also hailed the “success” of their containment strategy.
We now know this was the opposite of the truth — the threat was not remotely contained, and the administration’s failures were to blame for it. Burr’s own defense actually shows that the administration was dramatically misleading the public, even as Burr privately warned that the situation was far more dire.
Burr is declining to directly answer questions about the stock sales. But even if you grant that his motives were pure, that cannot expunge the other problem here: that Republicans like him knew in real time that things were surely much worse than Trump was publicly allowing, and likely knew that the administration’s strategy was not remotely matched to the threat.
The point here for our purposes, though, is that the stock sales are only one piece of this story. The other thing that makes this story scandalous is that officials knew things were far worse than Trump was saying publicly. And Burr is clearly on the hook for that.
This illustrates the need for serious reform. One big question is whether Burr violated federal laws against lawmakers using inside information to profit. But that aside, it’s clear that this story underscores the case for new laws that limit the degree to which federal lawmakers are permitted to own stocks at all.
Progressives in Congress have already introduced legislation that would ban stock ownership by members of Congress, top congressional staff and Cabinet secretaries while serving.
Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told me these revelations illustrate the scale of the problem — and why the current ban on trading on inside knowledge isn’t enough to ensure public confidence that officials are acting in the public interest, rather than in their own.
“If members simply don't own or trade assets that could conflict with their jobs or be related to non-public briefings,” Bookbinder said, “there will be no temptation for them to profit from information they learn on the job, and no reason for the public to doubt their motivations.”
It’s time to figure out what lawmakers knew, and when. Another big question raised by this story is this: What, exactly, were lawmakers told in their private administration briefings, and when were they told it?
Burr reportedly got daily briefings from the administration on the coronavirus threat. Surely this is one reason he was able to privately warn that things were dire. Yet Burr was also publicly claiming at the time that the United States was “better prepared than ever before” to handle threats such as this one.
Obviously that was false — and the question is what Burr had been told by the administration to the contrary.
Similarly, the Senate health committee, which Loeffler sits on, also hosted a private all-senators briefing from the administration early on. What did all those senators learn?
This line of inquiry goes far beyond Burr and Loeffler. It’s time to dig deeper into what the administration privately told lawmakers in real time about how bad things were going to get — and into how sharply at odds that was with what administration officials and those lawmakers were telling the rest of us.