In one day and in three news stories Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) risked becoming the poster children for the duplicity, graft, swampiness, and incompetence that marks both the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the GOP in the Trump era.
First NPR obtained a secret recording showing that Burr was warning well-connected constituents at the Capitol Hill Club about the dire threat of the pandemic, while his public posture matched that of the White House—ranging from sanguine to celebratory. In the days before Burr’s private comments he wrote that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” The White House budget director said that the virus was “not something that is going to have ripple effects” and Donald Trump was issuing absurd proclamations about how April flowers were going to be a sun-soaked vaccine of their own.
This private/public contrast was revealed to be even more stark hours later when Karl Evers-Hillstrom at OpenSecrets.org broke the news that Burr dumped $1.6 million in stock on February 13th, days before the market collapsed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a sell-off would be noteworthy for anyone, but for it to come from a public official who was being briefed on the crisis, for whom the assets were a significant portion of their net worth, and who was not raising any alarm bells publicly? This looks . . . very, very bad.
Generous observers might doubt that Sen. Burr would really be the type of person to let the private government briefings he receives influence his finances. Except that there are some other data points.
The Henderson Times-News reports that in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, Burr heard Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson tell a story about solvency in the big banks. And following this moment, Burr told his family to empty their bank accounts. Here’s Burr, in his own words:
On Friday night, I called my wife and I said, “Brooke, I am not coming home this weekend…I want you to go to the ATM machine and I want you to draw out everything it will let you take.
There’s more: Burr is also the only current member of Congress to have voted against the STOCK act, which banned insider trading by members.
And a couple hours after this second Burr revelation, the Daily Beast reported that recently-appointed Senator Kelly Loeffler sold “millions” in stock following a coronavirus briefing she received in January. Like, the same day. As a bonus, Loeffler also purchased stock in Citrix, a company that specializes in telework. Hmmmm. (Note: Loeffler has substantial wealth, so this level of trading may turn out to be more commonplace than it was for Burr, for whom it was an extreme aberration.)
Like Burr, while Loeffler was fleeing the stock market privately, she blew smoke up the president’s behind publicly saying that he was doing a “great job” and that the “economy is strong (‘on fire’ even)” in spite of the virus. She went to further, OANN-style lengths, in claiming that the Democrats had “intentionally misled the American people” on the virus to get the President. Possibly corrupt, certainly moronic.
And so barring a coincidental circumstance that requires a full accounting—Loeffler claimed late Thursday night that a third party made these trades and she didn’t know; Burr had not provided an explanation by publication—what we have here is a tale that perfectly encapsulates the Trump era in Washington:
- Trump’s solipsistic focus on ensuring that everyone testifies to how wonderful he is led him into a grotesquely irresponsible public relations centered approach to dealing with the pandemic.
- This approach was solely focused on maintaining the rising stock market that is central to his self-worth and his reelection prospects.
- As always, Trump refused to brook any opposition to his party line that concern about the virus was being overblown by an evil media who was exaggerating the crisis because they were hell-bent on taking out the the strong, brilliant, stable-genius who, through no fault of his own, has been continually thwarted by his own staff and other assorted dopes, weaklings, and Never Trumpers.
- In the face of this, two Republican senators realized, through their briefings with government experts, that the president’s line was wrong and that America was in great danger.
- However, they were afraid of finding themselves on the receiving end of mean tweets from Trump. So they not only refused to tell their constituents what they knew publicly, but they actively participated in Trump’s gaslighting.
- Meanwhile, they took the time to protect their families’ riches from the consequences that would follow once the crisis manifest on America’s shores.
- All of which adds up to a scam where officials with inside knowledge of the truth sold their stocks to protect themselves while the president, his son, and his chief economic advisor were telling the public that everything was wonderful and that they should be buying stocks. All right before the market cratered and decimated—actually, much more than decimated—the savings of any marks who had signed on with Trump University’s White House stock market masterclass.
- But the best part—the cherry on top, really—is that Burr and Loeffler betrayed their country and their constituents in order to help sell Trump’s disinformation. And yet the moment they became liabilities, Trump’s posse on Twitter and Fox—and reportedly the President himself—turned on them. They let Trump hide his tax returns, they protected him from impeachment, they humiliated themselves defending him—only to be stiffed like a couple of Trump hotel contractors.
This is the story of what happens when you put a career scam artist in charge of the indispensable nation and he finds himself in a historic crisis. That’s on Trump and the voters who chose him.
But the other half of the scandal is that the people in a position to stand up to Trump and protect the American people from the impending crisis were too worried about their pocketbooks, access, or Twitter mentions to do anything about it. This is a story not about Trump, but about the total and complete corruption of the Republican party itself.
The result of this incompetence-cum-corruption is that many of Burr’s and Loeffler’s constituents who did nothing to deserve it are finding themselves without a job this month. If there is not a better justification for their actions, Burr and Loeffler may soon join them.
Correction, March 23, 2020, 3:29 p.m.: The article originally stated that “ProPublica broke the news that Burr dumped $1.6 million in stock.” In fact, the story was originally broken by Karl Evers-Hillstrom at OpenSecrets.org.