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Burr to step down from Senate Intel panel amid stock sale probe

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrNorth Carolina — still purple but up for grabs North Carolina's Mark Walker expected to announce Senate bid Lara Trump mulling 2022 Senate run in North Carolina: report MORE (R-N.C.) is stepping aside as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee amid an investigation into his stock sales from earlier this year shortly before markets crashed.

“Senator Burr contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the pendency of the investigation," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Biden and reproductive health rights Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls MORE (R-Ky.) said in a statement Thursday.

“We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of the day tomorrow,” he added.

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Burr later told reporters that "this is a distraction to the hard work of the committee and the members, and I think that the security of the country is too important to have a distraction."

He subsequently released a statement confirming that he told McConnell he would step aside "until this investigation is resolved."

"I believe this step is necessary to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions," Burr added.

His decision to temporarily step down comes just a day after federal investigators seized Burr’s cellphone as part of an investigation into alleged insider trading.

The Department of Justice has been conducting a probe since March over Burr's sale of up to $1.72 million in stocks earlier this year. The stocks were sold in early February after senators received closed-door briefings on the national threat posed by the coronavirus, before most Americans were warned about the potential economic fallout of the pandemic.

Asked Thursday if he exercised poor judgement with the stock sale, Burr told reporters "no."

Burr has denied using any information he learned in his capacity as a senator to guide his decisions regarding selling his stocks.

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Earlier this month, ProPublica reported that Burr’s brother-in-law Gerald Fauth also sold a large portion of stock holdings in February before the stock market plunged.

Alice Fisher, who is advising Burr, told The Hill at the time that the North Carolina Republican “participated in the stock market based on public information and he did not coordinate his decision to trade on February 13 with Mr. Fauth."

Burr’s decision to step aside as committee chairman caught Republicans on the Intelligence panel by surprise.

“Wow,” said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Two more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE (Maine). “I don’t know what to say. I truly didn’t know.”

Collins and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHarris shares Thanksgiving recipe: 'During difficult times I have always turned to cooking' Biden leans on foreign policy establishment to build team Trump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin MORE (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, were later spotted having an animated discussion on the Senate floor.

Collins then spoke with Burr and Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Overnight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names MORE (S.D.) near the well of the Senate.

Others were also surprised to hear about the move.

Asked about Burr temporarily stepping down, Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge McConnell wants deal this week on fiscal 2021 spending figures Graham becomes center of Georgia storm MORE (R-Mo.) asked, “Has he done that?”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls The Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday MORE (R-Fla.), who is second in line to become chairman, appeared to be caught off guard as well.

Asked if he was interested in becoming interim chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Rubio responded, “Why?”

Rubio said he hadn’t heard about Burr’s decision.

Later, after a Senate floor vote, Rubio quipped to reporters: “I wish they would time these things better.”

He noted that McConnell has the power to appoint the interim chairman.

Rubio predicted that Burr would keep his seat on the committee, even though he will no longer serve as chairman.

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It wasn’t immediately clear who would take over the committee in the interim.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJim Elroy RischWill Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee MORE (R-Idaho), who is first in line to chair the Intelligence Committee but would have to give up his gavel on the Foreign Relations panel, declined to comment on his plans.

Senate Republicans earlier on Thursday had withheld judgment on Burr’s future as Intelligence Committee chairman, arguing he deserves a fair investigation.

Asked if Burr should relinquish his gavel, Thune told reporters: “Ultimately, those are all decisions he would have to make. He’s been a very capable chairman of the Intelligence Committee.”

“There’s a due process that he deserves like everybody does and that he’ll be going through,” Thune added. “Ultimately, that’s a conversation between him and the leader.” 

Thune noted there’s no requirement under Senate Republican Conference rules for a chairman to step down unless there’s a formal indictment.

McConnell ignored a question from a reporter earlier Thursday on whether Burr should continue to serve in his sensitive post while the investigation goes on.

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Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn says election outcome 'becoming increasingly clear': report Top GOP senator: Biden should be getting intel briefings GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results MORE (R-Texas), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said Burr is “entitled to the same presumption of innocence as Joe BidenJoe BidenPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Biden transition adds new members to coronavirus task force MORE,” an apparent reference to allegations of sexual assault against the former vice president by ex-Senate staffer Tara Reade.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection MORE (R-Ky.), a prominent critic of the U.S. intelligence community’s practices, also declined to call for Burr’s removal as chairman.

“I don’t have enough information to make any kind of judgment,” he said earlier on Thursday.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said “just because you’re accused of something doesn’t mean you’re guilty of it.”

“He’s entitled to due process,” Kennedy added.

Burr in March said he asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review his stock transactions after he came under public criticism.

Kennedy said he trusts the Department of Justice and the Ethics panel “to get the facts.”

“We just have to let the process run its course,” he said.

Updated at 2:53 p.m.