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

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump asserts his power over Republicans FISA 'reform': Groundhog Day edition Rubio: Coronavirus conspiracy theories could be used in foreign election misinformation campaigns 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 McConnellSenate passes bill to give flexibility for small business coronavirus aid program On The Money: GOP turning against new round of ,200 rebate checks | Millions of Americans frustrated by delayed unemployment checks | Senate votes to give coronavirus relief program more flexibility Rand Paul holding up quick passage of anti-lynching bill 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 CollinsClyburn: Cowed GOP ascribes 'mystical powers' to Trump Trump pushes back against GOP senators' criticism of dispersal of protesters in Lafayette Square: 'You got it wrong' Trump, Biden battle to shape opinion on scenes of unrest MORE (Maine). “I don’t know what to say. I truly didn’t know.”

Collins and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerVirginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests Trump asserts his power over Republicans Expanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support 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 ThuneOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump's confidence in Esper | 'Angry and appalled' Mattis scorches Trump Republicans stand by Esper after public break with Trump Blumenthal to introduce legislation to limit Trump's power under Insurrection Act 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 BluntCalls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress Washington prepares for a summer without interns GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill MORE (R-Mo.) asked, “Has he done that?”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP senator blocks bill giving flexibility to small-business loans but says deal near GOP senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters Murkowski: Treatment of White House protesters 'not the America I know' 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 RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischDemocrat Paulette Jordan to face incumbent Jim Risch in Idaho Senate race Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation 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 presses DOJ to release results of investigation into Larry Nassar probe Minority caucuses call for quick action on police reform 7 GOP senators slam State Dept for 'slow and inefficient policy' on passports MORE (R-Texas), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said Burr is “entitled to the same presumption of innocence as Joe BidenJoe BidenFox News polls: Trump trails Biden in Ohio, Arizona and Wisconsin Kelly holds double-digit lead over McSally in Arizona: poll Obama calls for police reforms, doesn't address Trump 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 PaulRand Paul holding up quick passage of anti-lynching bill Democratic senator to offer amendment halting 'military weaponry' given to police Second senator tests positive for coronavirus antibodies 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.