Burr steps down as Intelligence chairman

Chairman Richard Burr, (R-NC), gives opening remarks at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on May 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr is leaving his post as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman after federal agents seized his cellphone Wednesday as part of an insider trading probe.

“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 McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday morning in a statement. “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.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that agents had seized the North Carolina Republican’s cellphone Wednesday as part of a Justice Department investigation into stock sales he made ahead of the market drop caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Burr has faced a backlash from Democrats and Republicans alike since the allegations of insider trading surfaced. Critics allege that the North Carolina senator broke the law by using nonpublic information about the threat posed by the virus when he dumped up to $1.7 million of stocks in February.

Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz previously slammed the North Carolina senator for remaining the intelligence chairman “after screwing all Americans by falsely reassuring us” with op-eds on COVID-19 “while he dumped his stock portfolio early.”

Burr’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters Thursday that he’d spoken to Burr about his decision. Warner thinks it’s appropriate and hopes it’s resolved quickly, according to Warner spokeswoman Rachel Cohen.

Dennis DeConcini, a former Arizona Democratic senator who served as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he “never heard anything like that before,” regarding the seizure of Burr’s phone. Asked how serious the situation is for the North Carolina senator, DeConcini said: “One to 10? Ten.”

It’s not yet certain who would replace Burr as chairman on the committee. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho is the next Republican in terms of seniority, but he is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is the next Republican in line. Rubio appeared surprised when asked by reporters about Burr’s decision on Thursday. He quipped to reporters: “I wish they would time these things better,” The Hill reported.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said Burr’s resignation as chairman, “is rooted in political opportunism. Burr faces very serious allegations of self-dealing insider trading during the pandemic, which reflects very poorly not just on Burr himself but also the political party in which he has a leadership position.”

Prior to the announcement that Burr would step down as chairman, Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s junior GOP senator, told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt that it wasn’t his place to comment on whether Burr should keep the gavel.

“That’s … between Senator Burr and the leader. I do believe as I’ve said before he owes us all an explanation. … We just need to see where the investigation ends,” Tillis said, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Jennifer Haberkorn.

Critics stepped up their calls for Burr’s resignation from the Senate on Thursday.

Zach Hudson, spokesperson for the liberal super PAC American Bridge 21st Century urged Burr to resign from office immediately.

“Senator Richard Burr’s announcement is a blatant admission of guilt. He used privileged information to personally profit and is only acting now because he got caught. His actions today are still a day late and a million dollars short; he has lost the trust and confidence of his constituents and as a result, is incapable of serving in public office.”

If Burr were to resign from the Senate, a 2018 law approved by Republican supermajorities in the General Assembly specifies that Gov. Cooper would have to select from a list of three individuals submitted by the executive committee of the state Republican Party in naming a replacement. Previously, the governor only had to choose someone affiliated with the same political party as the outgoing senator.

Note/update: as the comment below from Stewart rightfully points out, the situation would be different if Burr were to resign from the Senate more than 60 days prior to this November’s election. In that case, a new election would be held to fill the remainder of his unexpired term on Nov. 3.

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