Senator Richard M. Burr in January at the Capitol. He has long pushed for the United States to better prepare for the threat presented by pandemics- Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times ( as seen in the photo )
After the sales in February, the North Carolina Republican warned a group that the virus could soon cause a major disruption in the United States. Three other senators also sold major holdings around the same time
WASHINGTON — Senator Richard M. Burr sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock in major companies last month, as President Trump and others in his party were still playing down the threat presented by the coronavirus outbreak and before the stock market’s precipitous plunge.
The stocks were sold in mid-February, days after Mr. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, wrote an opinion article for Fox News suggesting that the United States was “better prepared than ever before” to confront the virus. At least three other senators sold major stock holdings around the same time, disclosure records show.
Two weeks after Mr. Burr sold his stocks, he spoke at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington to a nonpartisan group called the Tar Heel Club, warning that the virus could soon cause a major disruption in the United States.
The gathering, which drew fewer than 100 people, included representatives from the North Carolina governor’s office, as well as staff members from other congressional offices in the state.
“There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history,” Mr. Burr said, according to a recording obtained by NPR, which reported on his remarks on Thursday. “It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
He added: “Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they’re making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference.”
Mr. Burr has long pushed for the United States to better prepare for the threat presented by pandemics, including sponsoring legislation that Congress passed in 2006 called the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act.
“His message has always been, and continues to be, that we must be prepared to protect American lives in the event of a pandemic or bio-attack,” Caitlin Carroll, a spokeswoman for Mr. Burr, said in a statement. “Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus.”
In a series of posts on Twitter, Mr. Burr accused NPR of twisting his comments into a “tabloid-style hit piece.” He argued that the report made him look duplicitous for sharing information at a publicly advertised event that was consistent with the message members of the Trump administration were then trying to promulgate. He did not address his stock sales.
As the Intelligence Committee chairman, Mr. Burr receives regular briefings on threats to the United States, including the coronavirus. He is also a member of the Senate health committee, which in January hosted a briefing with top Trump administration officials open to all senators.
It is apparently not the first time Mr. Burr has acted decisively to shield his assets from financial turmoil after hearing from government officials. In 2009, he recounted in a speech how after he heard Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson discuss a major company’s difficulty moving money between banks, he called his wife and instructed her to withdraw as much cash as possible from their own accounts out of fear there would be a run on funds.
Three other senators also sold major holdings around the time Mr. Burr did, according to the disclosure records: Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who is also a member of the Intelligence Committee; James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma; and Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia.
The record of Mr. Burr’s stock transaction shows he and his wife sold 33 different stocks on Feb. 13 that were collectively worth $628,000 to $1.7 million, according to the disclosures filed with the secretary of the Senate. Those sales include as much as $150,000 worth of stock in two hotel chains, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and Extended Stay America. The values of both companies have declined significantly in recent weeks. He also sold as much as $65,000 worth of stock in Park Hotels & Resorts.
Ms. Feinstein and her husband sold $1.5 million to $6 million worth of stock in Allogene Therapeutics, a California-based biotech company, in transactions that took place on Jan. 31 and Feb. 18.
Mr. Inhofe sold a large amount of stock — all on Jan. 27 — including holdings in PayPal, Apple and Brookfield Asset Management, a real estate company, with the overall value of the sales totaling as much as $400,000, a disclosure report shows.
Ms. Loeffler and her husband, Jeffrey C. Sprecher, who is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, reported 27 stock sales worth millions of dollars starting on Jan. 24. On that day, Ms. Loeffler tweeted about attending the Senate briefing on the coronavirus. The stocks the couple sold were in companies including Exxon Mobil, Ross Stores and AutoZone.
“Appreciate today’s briefing from the President’s top health officials on the novel coronavirus outbreak,” she wrote about the briefing. “These men and women are working around the clock to keep our country safe and healthy.”
Ms. Loeffler’s office issued a statement early on Friday that said she did not even know the trades had taken place until weeks after they were made.
“Sen. Loeffler does not make investment decisions for her portfolio,” the statement said. “Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisers without her or her husband’s knowledge or involvement.”
The sales by Ms. Loeffler were initially reported by The Daily Beast.
A spokesman for Ms. Feinstein said that she played no role in the decision to sell the stock. “All of Senator Feinstein’s assets are in a blind trust,” a spokesman, Tom Mentzer, said in a statement. “She has no involvement in her husband’s financial decisions.”
In a statement on Friday, Mr. Inhofe said he had not attended the Jan. 24 briefing and does not have “any involvement” in his investment decisions. He said that when he became chairman of the Armed Services Committee in late 2018, he had instructed his financial adviser to begin selling off all equities in favor of mutual funds and that the January sales were a part of that transition.
Congress began requiring its members to disclose their stock sales in 2012, when it passed a law called the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which was intended to prevent lawmakers from using inside information to profit. The forms do not require lawmakers to record their actual earnings from those sales, just a range of the value of each transaction.
Details of Mr. Burr’s stock sales were first reported by ProPublica and the Center for Responsive Politics, which maintains a database of congressional stock transactions.
The sales by Mr. Burr appear to be a significant share of his holdings, according to his most recent annual financial report.
The coronavirus first surfaced in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan. By mid-February, Mr. Trump continued to play down the threat.
“I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along,” the president said on Feb. 19.
Aides to Mr. Burr said that the decision to sell the stocks was a private one that was made long before the stock market plunged and evidence of a widespread health threat emerged in the United States.
Liberal groups quickly sought to capitalize on the sales, suggesting Mr. Burr should give up his office and advancing unsupported claims that he may have broken the law.
“Senator Burr needs to resign immediately,” said Zach Hudson, a spokesman for American Bridge, a Democratic advocacy group. “His conduct as detailed by this report represents a gross violation of the public’s trust and he must be held accountable for his behavior that appears criminal.”
Criticism came from the conservative side as well, with Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host, also calling for Mr. Burr’s resignation.
“He dumped his shares in hotel stocks so he wouldn’t lose money, and then he stayed silent,” Mr. Carlson said during his show on Thursday night. “Maybe there is an honest explanation for what he did. If there is, he should share it with us immediately. Otherwise, he must resign from the Senate and face prosecution for insider trading.”