Richard Burr to step down as Intelligence Committee chairman

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Richard Burr, R-N.C., reaches for hand sanitizer at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. (Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina is stepping aside as chairman of the influential Senate Intelligence Committee while he’s under investigation for stock trades he made ahead of the market downturn sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Thursday that 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.” He said Burr’s resignation as chairman will be effective at the end of the day on Friday.

Burr’s decision to step aside as chairman is a stunning development for the North Carolina Republican, who has led the Senate Intelligence Committee through its three-year investigation into Russian election interference that is nearing its completion.

Shortly after McConnell’s announcement, Burr told reporters he is resigning as intelligence chair because “this is a distraction to the hard work of the committee and the members and I think the security of the country is too important to have any distractions.”

Burr also said he has been cooperating with investigators “since the beginning” and will let the investigation play out.

He stepped down after the FBI served his lawyer with a search warrant and Burr surrendered his phone Wednesday, a senior Justice Department official told CNN. The use of the search warrant had been signed off at the highest levels of the Justice Department, as is protocol, the official said.

The Los Angeles Times first reported the warrant.

It’s not immediately clear who will take over as chairman of the committee. Committee members Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho, Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine are next in line in seniority, though all currently lead other committees.

Senate Republicans reacted cautiously to the news of Burr’s search warrant on Thursday, saying that the matter of his chairmanship was between Burr and McConnell.

“There’s due process he deserves like everybody else that he’ll be going through, but I think ultimately that’s a conversation probably between him and the leader,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican.

McConnell did not respond to questions about Burr in the Capitol on Thursday. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, also declined to weigh in ahead of the news Burr would step aside.

Burr came under fire in March when it was first disclosed that he and his wife made nearly three dozen stock trades worth between $628,000 and $1.7 million on a single day, February 13, representing a significant portion of his stock portfolio.

As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr has received classified briefings on the coronavirus outbreak in addition to closed-door briefings all senators had access to as the virus spread.

Burr has said that he made the trades using only publicly available information, not classified briefings. But he asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review the sales in March.

Congress passed the Stock Act in 2012, which explicitly made it illegal for members of Congress to trade stocks with inside information. There’s no public evidence that Burr broke the law or violated Senate rules with the trades.

In addition to the trades Burr made on February 13, the senator’s brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, sold six stocks worth between $97,000 and $280,000 on the same day as Burr. Fauth is a member of the National Mediation Board, which deals with aviation and rail commerce.

Burr’s attorney, Alice Fisher, said last week that Burr did not coordinate his trades with Fauth. Burr’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Burr’s fellow North Carolina senator, Republican Thom Tillis, who is up for reelection in 2020, declined to weigh in on whether Burr should step down as intel chairman on Thursday, saying that “is something between the Senator Burr, and the leader.”

“I do believe as I said before he owes us all an explanation and I was well aware of the fact that an investigation is moving forward, we just need to see where the investigation ends,” Tillis said in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, said CNN’s “Newsroom” that the trades “bear further investigation.”

“Senator Burr has called for further investigation, he feels like everything was in the up-and-up and he’ll be exonerated,” Cassidy said. “I have not read anything but the headline, but it’s important that the American people have faith in Congress and that’s part of it. Richard welcomes that; I welcome that.”

Schumer said on CNBC Thursday that it was “premature” for him to comment on the investigation into Burr.

“I don’t own any stocks. I’ve told my colleagues in the Senate at the very least it creates the appearance of a conflict, so it’s better not to own any. But I cannot comment on Burr until I know the details,” Schumer said.

Senate Republican conference rules state that chairs should step down if they are indicted, but the rules do not make reference to senators who are under investigation.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, stepped down as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015 after he was indicted. He returned to that post in 2018 after the Justice Department dropped the corruption charges against him.

In March, CNN reported the FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission had contacted Burr as part of a probe into stock trades made by lawmakers surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Burr has declined to discuss the situation when asked about his trades in the Capitol. “I am not talking about any of that. Thanks, though,” he said Tuesday when asked to comment on the trades his brother-in-law made.

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