What is it with Richard Burr?
Why did North Carolina’s senior U.S. senator shirk one chance after another to speak truth to power? Or simply to speak at all?
First, there was Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Burr’s wobbly buy-in on the widely discredited notion of Ukraine meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. Then there was Burr’s run-with-the-herd mentality during the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump.
Then NPR reported last week that Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, told a small group of North Carolina constituents three weeks ago that he was seriously concerned about the impact of the coronavirus in the United States. “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” Burr warned at the Feb. 27 gathering of a bipartisan group called the Tar Heel Circle. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
Burr was referring to the 1918 influenza pandemic that infected roughly 500 million people, claiming at least 50 million lives, 675,000 in the U.S. alone.
On the same day, Trump was striking an altogether different tone. “It’s going to disappear,” the president said of the novel coronavirus. “One day, it’s like a miracle. It will disappear” — a decidedly more optimistic picture than Burr’s.
The Tar Heel Circle consists of companies and organizations from North Carolina that donated to Burr’s reelection campaigns in 2015 and 2016, NPR reported.
Why make such remarks only to a select group of donors? Why didn’t he say so, more openly and forcefully, to the public — as well as to COVID-19 skeptics in his own party?
A spokeswoman for Burr said he “has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus.”
He could have “educated” us more. He predicted the need for tightened travel rules and the military’s help. He predicted school closings.
Burr’s comments likely were so prescient because he was one of the authors of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which lays out a plan for federal responses to outbreaks. He has made some public statements based on his expertise, opposing what he considered to be shortcomings in the nation’s pandemic surveillance efforts.
So why wouldn’t he share his warnings with a broader audience? He isn’t running for reelection, so he has little to lose politically.
This was quickly followed by a report from ProPublica that Burr sold about $1 million in stocks on Feb. 13 after writing a Feb. 7 op-ed saying that the U.S. was equipped to combat COVID-19. This suggests that Burr not only didn’t inform the public of his concerns but may have used the knowledge to personally benefit himself.
ProPublica named other legislators who may have benefited by selling off stock before warning the public about the serious pandemic. But Burr is our senator — he represents our interests and our reputation. Which calls into question whom Burr thinks he serves in Washington: His constituents or himself?
By Friday morning, members of the public and the media, including some that are usually more forgiving to Republicans, were calling for Burr’s resignation.
Also on Friday, Burr asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review his stock sales. We’ll be interested in any resulting report.
But even complete exoneration on his stock sales would leave open the more urgent question of whether Burr withheld important information from the public — information that could have saved lives.