Facing particularly stark questions Friday morning are two GOP senators, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia. New disclosures show both of them dumped between hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars worth of stock early in the coronavirus outbreak.
They did so even as they were offering public assurances about the government’s ability to deal with the situation — and even as one of them, Burr, was offering some much more dire comments privately. Burr, as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also reportedly received daily briefings about the threat.
Loeffler has responded by saying her stocks were traded by an independent third party without any input from either her or her husband, who is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. Burr has said that both his trades and his more dire private comments reflect public statements from the administration and not private briefings he received.
Other senators including Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) are also facing questions about the timing to their own stock dumps. Both say they weren’t personally involved in the investment decisions.
Jan. 24: The Senate Health Committee holds a private, all-senators briefing featuring Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield and infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci.
Feb. 7: Burr in a Fox News op-ed with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) says Americans are “rightfully concerned” about coronavirus but 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.”
Feb. 12: The Dow Jones industrial average closes at its highest-ever point: 29,551.42. The Dow had remained steady around 29,000 for weeks and wouldn’t begin dropping for more than a week afterward.
Feb. 13: Burr sells off between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings in 33 separate transactions, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in hotel stock — his largest sell-off in at least 14 months. He doesn’t buy any stocks.
Feb. 24: The Dow registers its first big drop of the year, shedding more than 1,000 points.
Feb. 25: The CDC’s Nancy Messonnier says on a teleconference that the spread of coronavirus is “inevitable.” “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country,” she says.
Later in the day, though, the CDC’s Anne Schuchat says, “We believe the immediate risk here in the United States remains low, and we’re working hard to keep that risk low.”
Democrats complain that a briefing they received earlier in the day from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had been private and that the information wasn’t shared with their constituents. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) says the senators were told that “there is a very strong chance of an extremely serious outbreak of the coronavirus here in the United States.” Azar explains at a hearing that day, “Chairman Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked that briefing be held at the top secret level.”
Feb. 26: Schuchat says at a White House briefing, “Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working and is responsible for the low levels of cases that we have so far. However, we do expect more cases, and this is a good time to prepare.”
Feb. 27: Burr tells a private audience, “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.” The comments were first unearthed by NPR earlier Thursday.
March 3: Burr tweets after the first confirmed case of coronavirus in his home state that, “The U.S. is in a better position than any other nation to handle a public health emergency,” but says Congress must make sure first responders have the resources they need.
Since the stories about his stock trades were first published, Burr initially spent more time defending his Feb. 27 comments rather than explaining the trades.
On his Twitter account, he pointed to the public comments from health officials in the days before to suggest that he wasn’t saying anything that wasn’t public. That’s plausible, but there’s a difference between warning people to be prepared and comparing coronavirus to the 1918 influenza pandemic. That’s an order of magnitude more severe than public health officials were talking about, and this was at a time in which President Trump was still downplaying things. The same day Burr made the private comments, Trump said the number of coronavirus cases could soon drop to zero.
Burr more directly addressed the stock trades later Friday morning, again saying he was relying upon publicly available information and calling for a Senate investigation.
“Understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency,” Burr said.
Unlike Loeffler, who is estimated to be the wealthiest member of Congress and for whom the trades represent a rather small portion of her immense wealth, Burr was worth an estimated $1.7 million in 2018, according to Roll Call. That means the sell-off could represent a massive change in his financial fortunes. It’s also worth noting that Burr in 2012 was one of just three senators to vote against the Stock Act.
Here’s the timeline for Loeffler, whose trades were first reported by the Daily Beast:
Jan. 24: The Senate Health Committee, on which Loeffler sits, holds the private, all-senators briefing featuring top health officials.
Jan. 24-Feb. 14: Loeffler sells stocks jointly owned with her husband worth between $1,275,000 and $3,100,000.
Feb. 12: The Dow Jones industrial average closes at its highest-ever point.
Feb. 14: Loeffler buys stock in Citrix, a company that provides web-based services including teleconferencing, and Oracle.
Feb. 24: The Dow registers its first big drop of the year.
Feb. 28: Loeffler says in a tweet, “Democrats have dangerously and intentionally misled the American people on #Coronavirus readiness. Here’s the truth: @realDonaldTrump & his administration are doing a great job working to keep Americans healthy & safe.” The tweet links to an AP fact check that says some Democrats have “distorted” the readiness of the federal government.
The same day, she and fellow Georgia Sen. David Perdue (R) issue a statement in which Loeffler says, “As a member of the Senate HELP Committee, I will continue to work with my colleagues to bring to bear the full expertise, weight and resources of the federal government to protect Georgians in the wake of this global outbreak.”
March 10: Loeffler tweets after a meeting with Trump, Vice President Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, “Concerned about #coronavirus? Remember this: The consumer is strong, the economy is strong, & jobs are growing, which puts us in the best economic position to tackle #COVID19 & keep Americans safe.”
March 11: Loeffler tweets, “As Democrats continue to play politics with the #coronavirus, the White House is working to actually help the American people. Proud to work with @realdonaldtrump’s administration to protect the American public during this public health emergency.”
Loeffler even more than Burr seemed to downplay the situation publicly, echoing Trump’s comments that the coronavirus was being politicized against him by Democrats.
But her defense of the trades is more direct.
“This is a ridiculous and baseless attack,” Loeffler said on Twitter early Friday. “I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisers without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.”
She later added on CNBC: “The third-party advisers are the same ones that many Americans rely on for their investment advice. I have no involvement in these decisions. I don’t have conversations with them about any of this" She added: “I should note that I have 20 years of investment experience, where I’m accustomed to managing through sensitive information, and I have always adhered to the letter and the spirit of the law, and I’ll continue to do that.”
If her stocks were in fact handled by an independent third party, that’s a compelling defense. (And it’s notable that Burr says he made the trades himself.) At the same time, there were already questions about whether Loeffler, who was appointed to the Senate in January, should have been seated on a committee that oversees her husband’s work. And you can bet there will be plenty of digging into whether there was something untoward here. Burr’s call for an ethics review puts pressure on Loeffler to do the same.
Loeffler’s GOP opponent in the 2020 election, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), attacked her via Twitter on Friday morning.
“People are losing their jobs, their businesses, their retirements, and even their lives and Kelly Loeffler is profiting off their pain?” Collins said. “I’m sickened just thinking about it.”
Further disclosures have shown other senators sold off significant value in stocks around the same time. Feinstein sold $1.5 million to $6 million worth of stock between Jan. 31 and Feb. 18. Her office says “All of Senator Feinstein’s assets are in a blind trust” and that, “She has no involvement in her husband’s financial decisions.” Feinstein and fellow Democrats were not as optimistic about the coronavirus situation in their public comments. And as Barron’s previously reported, the stock Feinstein sold was at a low point.
Inhofe also unloaded as much as $400,000 worth of stock on Jan. 27. His office said he didn’t attend the Jan. 24 briefing and he says he wasn’t involved in the stock trades.