Burr problem grows for GOP

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrFISA 'reform': Groundhog Day edition Justice Department closing stock investigations into Loeffler, Inhofe, Feinstein The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump taking malaria drug; mayor eyes DC reopening MORE’s (R-N.C.) decision to temporarily step down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee amid an FBI probe into his stock transactions shook Senate Republicans on Thursday.

While Republicans praised Burr for standing down and offered support for a colleague, they acknowledged the FBI’s seizure of Burr’s cellphone created difficult optics for Republicans battling to retain their Senate majority.

One Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on the political problem created by the FBI raid said the best-case scenario would be for Burr to be exonerated by the Justice Department before the Nov. 3 elections.

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The Republican acknowledged it looks bad for Senate Republicans as a whole but added that it would look worse if Burr resigned from office altogether.

GOP senators who did speak on the record also acknowledged the potential of an image problem.

“When you’re having to navigate through what he is, it will be a process and we’ll have to see how it ends up. Optics here are different probably than most places,” said Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunGOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill Hillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal Republicans introduce bill to create legal 'safe harbor' for gig companies during the pandemic MORE (R-Ind.), who noted that serving in the Senate has the “highest profile in the country.”

“You have to contend with that,” he said. “You’re going to be held at a higher level of scrutiny, obviously.”

The stock sales by various senators in the weeks and days before the coronavirus pandemic radically altered life in the United States has been a simmering controversy for weeks.

It is one that has touched both parties.

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Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter Justice Department closing stock investigations into Loeffler, Inhofe, Feinstein Let's support and ensure the safety of workers risking so much for us MORE (D-Calif.) has been contacted by the FBI about her husband’s stock transactions. A spokesman for Feinstein said the senator “was asked some basic questions by law enforcement."

“She was happy to voluntarily answer those questions to set the record straight and provided additional documents to show she had no involvement in her husband’s transactions,” the aide said.

Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerBossie, Lewandowski warned Trump he was in trouble in 2020: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP beset by convention drama MORE (R-Ga.), who was appointed to her seat and sworn in on Jan. 6, has come under scrutiny for $20 million in stock transactions from late February and March. She is running this fall to retain her seat, but faces challenges from candidates in both parties, including Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsBossie, Lewandowski warned Trump he was in trouble in 2020: report The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP beset by convention drama Loeffler runs ad tying Doug Collins to Pelosi, Sanders, Biden MORE (R-Ga.), the former ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

A spokesperson for Loeffler on Thursday night revealed her boss had shared financial documents with the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee.

“Senator Loeffler has forwarded documents and information to DOJ, the SEC, and the Senate Ethics Committee establishing that she and her husband acted entirely appropriately and observed both the letter and the spirit of the law,” said the spokesperson.  

“The documents and information demonstrated her and her husband’s lack of involvement in their managed accounts, as well the details of those accounts. Senator Loeffler has welcomed and responded to any questions from day one,” the aide said.

Loeffler earlier on Thursday declined to say whether she had been contacted at all by the FBI, but her office later announced that she has not received a search warrant.

Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks on Feb. 13 after receiving closed-door briefings on the looming pandemic. At the time, most Americans had failed to realize the seriousness of what was coming.

Alice Fisher, who is advising Burr, has told The Hill that the senator “participated in the stock market based on public” information.

On Thursday, Burr said he didn’t regret the transactions and had done nothing wrong. But he acknowledged that keeping his chairmanship would have caused “difficulty” for both his committee and the Senate GOP conference.

“I told them [I] resigned as chairman so that this didn’t cause a difficulty on the committee or within the conference,” Burr told reporters while leaving the Capitol Thursday afternoon.

Asked about his intention to remain in Congress until the end of 2022, when his term ends, Burr answered tersely: “Yeah.”

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He is expected to remain as a member of the Intelligence Committee as well, said a GOP source familiar with Burr’s plans.

The bombshell news of an FBI raid on the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee was the talk of Capitol Hill on Thursday morning.

Several Republican senators found themselves immediately on the defensive from reporters’ questions when they arrived to work, putting them in the awkward position of having to defend Burr.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight Bottom line Five questions about the next COVID-19 relief package MORE (R-Texas), a member of the Intelligence panel, sought to deflect questions about Burr’s chairmanship by arguing he was “entitled to the same presumption of innocence as Joe BidenJoe BidenProsecutor investigating whether Tara Reade gave false testimony as expert witness Poll: Biden leads Trump by 11 points nationally George Floyd's sister says Minneapolis officers should be charged with murder MORE,” referring to allegations of sexual assault against the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBossie, Lewandowski warned Trump he was in trouble in 2020: report FISA 'reform': Groundhog Day edition The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter MORE (R-Ky.) swiftly put an end to the speculation about Burr’s status as chairman by announcing “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.”  

The GOP leader acknowledged only a day earlier that Senate Republicans face a “challenging” political environment this year. The GOP holds a 53-47 seat majority, but a number of Republicans face competitive races in this cycle.

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Republican aides contrasted Burr’s decision with that of Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation Hillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal Senate chairman schedules vote on Trump nominee under investigation MORE (N.J.), the former Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who didn’t resign his gavel while under investigation by the Justice Department and only stepped down temporarily once he was formally indicted on bribery and corruption charges.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US death toll nears 100,000 as country grapples with reopening GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill On The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K MORE (S.D.) expressed hope that the FBI seizure of Burr’s phone is a sign that it’s nearing the end of its investigation and that it will announce its findings soon.

“The legal process will unfold. My assumption is that this move by the FBI, hopefully, means they’re getting close to winding things up and we’ll see where it goes,” he said. “Obviously they’ve got to follow the facts. We’ll see what happens coming out of it.”

But Thune admitted “this situation a little bit murky.”