Sen. Richard Burr’s (R-N.C.) decision to temporarily step down as chairman of the Intelligence Committee sent shock waves through the Senate on Thursday. 

The announcement, made in a statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), visibly shocked several of Burr’s colleagues, who appeared to be learning the news as reporters asked them about the decision. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and the Intelligence Committee, appeared unaware that Burr had decided to step down. 

“Has he done that?” Blunt said when asked by reporters 

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who are also members of the panel, appeared to have not seen the statement from McConnell. 

“Oh wow,” said Collins. “I don’t know what to say, I truly didn’t know about it. He’s been an excellent chairman of the committee.”

Collins and Sen. Mark Warner (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, Warner and Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, near the well of the Senate.

Asked by a gaggle of reporters if he expected to become chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Rubio appeared perplexed: “Um, why?” 

“I haven’t heard that,” he added when informed that McConnell had announced that Burr would step aside pending the outcome of the FBI’s investigation. 

McConnell’s statement announcing the decision by Burr to step down temporarily came just as senators were arriving in the Capitol for a pre-scheduled noon vote. 

Rubio, asked as he left the vote if he got more information while on the floor, noted that the news was “just out.” 

“I mean I wish they would time these things better,” he quipped.

It was the latest turn since reports surfaced in March that the Justice Department was conducting a probe into 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.

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

But the questions around the sales escalated on Wednesday night after the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI had carried out a warrant to confiscate Burr’s cellphone as part of its investigation. 

Burr and McConnell both said that the North Carolina senator called the GOP leader on Thursday morning to inform McConnell that he had decided to temporarily give up his chairmanship — a decision that McConnell said he agreed with. 

Burr also addressed the decision during a closed-door GOP lunch on Thursday, telling his colleagues that he decided to step aside “so that this didn’t cause a difficulty on the committee or within the conference.” 

Republicans largely held back from questioning Burr on Thursday, with several saying that he deserved a presumption of innocence pending the outcome of the FBI investigation. 

Asked about Burr’s comments in the lunch, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told CNN that “he was supported.” 

No GOP senator had publicly called on him to step down from being chairman of the Intelligence Committee, though some pundits, including radio host Hugh Hewitt, have called on him to step down from being Intelligence Committee chairman while under investigation. 

Burr’s decision, which will go into effect on Friday, comes at a crucial moment for the committee. It’s expected to vote next week on Rep. John Ratcliffe’s nomination to be the next director of national intelligence and the committee is expected to release its final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election by the August recess. 

Senate GOP conference rules only require a senator to give up their gavel if they’ve been indicted with a felony. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) stepped down as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee when he was indicted on corruption charges. 

But several senators indicated on Thursday afternoon that they supported Burr’s decision. 

“I think he’s trying to do what he thinks is the right thing and I respect that,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added that he did not believe Burr had done “anything criminally wrong.” 

“The bottom line is, let’s just see how this turns out I’ve nothing but good things to say about Richard Burr,” he said.

Tags Bob Menendez Intelligence Committee John Cornyn John Ratcliffe John Thune Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mark Warner Mike Rounds Mitch McConnell Richard Burr Roy Blunt Susan Collins

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