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North Carolina U.S. Senator Richard Burr steps down from chairmanship after FBI searches phone

Burr is under investigation for stock trades made before markets tanked due to coronavirus crisis

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — The political and legal jeopardy facing U.S. Senator Richard Burr intensified Thursday, after the FBI executed a search warrant for his phone as part of an investigation into stock sales he made before the coronavirus crisis caused a market plunge.

Just hours after the Los Angeles Times broke the news about the search warrant, the North Carolina Republican temporarily stepped aside as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Burr would relinquish the chairmanship “during the pendency of the investigation.”

“We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee,” McConnell said in a statement.

U.S. Senator Richard Burr, R-North Carolina

In brief remarks to a reporter Thursday, Burr, who has previously denied any wrongdoing in the stock sales, said he had been cooperating with the investigation, which he said should be allowed “to play out.”

Burr said he decided to step down from his chairmanship because the investigation “is a distraction to the hard work of the committee, and the members and I think that the security of the country is too important to have a distraction.”

Burr had been cruising toward retirement in his last term in the Senate as head of one of its most important committees before he was hit by blowback from stock sales he made in February, which are now being investigated by both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

At issue is whether Burr used inside information he obtained as a senator to make the stock sales, which would violate federal law.

An FBI search warrant would have required a finding by a federal judge of probable cause that a crime had been committed and approval at the highest levels of the Justice Department, an indication of the seriousness of Burr’s potential legal jeopardy.

An analysis of financial disclosure reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group, showed that on February 13, Burr sold 33 stocks worth between $628,000 and $1.7 million dollars, including stocks in hotel companies hard hit by the coronavirus. The stock market began to plunge about a week later.

Senators only have to report financial transactions within ranges on disclosure reports, so the exact amount of Burr’s stock sales is unknown.

Prior to his stock sales, Burr, as the intelligence committee chair, was receiving daily briefings from Trump administration officials about coronavirus.

ProPublica subsequently reported that Burr’s brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, sold stock on the same day.

Members of Congress are permitted to own and trade stocks. However, trades have to be disclosed, and it is illegal for them to buy and sell stock based on insider information that isn’t available to the general public, under a law passed in 2012 that Burr voted against.

Burr has said his stock trades were based solely on publicly available information.

In addition to the stock sales themselves, Burr’s public comments during the early days of the coronavirus crisis have contributed to the firestorm he now faces.

On February 7, Burr co-wrote an opinion article for Fox News in which he said that the United States “is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus” and said public health officials were moving “swiftly and decisively” to deal with the threat.

But a week later, he began selling stock, and on February 27, he told a private meeting of North Carolina business leaders that coronavirus “is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” according to audio of the speech obtained by National Public Radio.

Burr also likened coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that is believed to have killed at least 17 million people worldwide, NPR reported.

Burr, 64, was first elected in 2004. He has announced he won’t seek re-election to a fourth term in 2022.

It will be up to McConnell to pick a new chair for the intelligence panel Among the names being considered is Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Rubio indicated he would be wiling to serve but downplayed the impact of the change, saying “whoever gets it is going to be a backup quarterback coming into the game for a few plays while the guy goes through a concussion protocol.”

Several other senators have had their stock trades come under scrutiny amid the coronavirus market plunge, including Kelley Loeffler of Georgia and Dianne Feinstein of California.

A spokesperson for Loeffler said Thursday that she has not been served with a search warrant.

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U.S. Senators Richard Burr, Kelly Loeffler under fire for selling stock before coronavirus slide

Burr and Loeffler insist they did nothing wrong in unloading stocks before markets tanked

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — Republican U.S. Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia are facing a torrent of criticism after revelations that they and family members unloaded millions of dollars worth of stock before U.S. markets tanked over concerns about the coronavirus — and while both senators were still making upbeat assessments about its threat.

Prior to his stock sales, Burr, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was receiving daily briefings from Trump administration officials about coronavirus; Loeffler and her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, whose company owns the New York Stock Exchange, sold stock after she attended a private briefing for senators on the topic in late January.

Another Southern senator, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, also sold stock after that briefing but says he did not attend.

U.S. Senators Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia) and Richard Burr (R-North Carolina)

All three senators insist they did nothing wrong, although Burr has asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review his sales.

“I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks,” Burr said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out it its Asia bureaus.”

Loeffler — a multimillionaire business executive appointed to the Senate in January by Governor Brian Kemp — called the reports about the stock trades “completely false,” saying they were made by her financial advisers.

“I’m not involved in the decision-making of these trades, nor have I been in communication with my third-party financial advisors about them,” she said in a statement posted on Twitter. “I have no knowledge of these trades until well after they are made.”

However, Democrats and even some Republicans are calling for investigations into the trades — and even for the senators to resign.

Among those calling for Burr’s head is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who told his viewers that “there is no greater moral crime than betraying your country in a time of crisis.”

While Burr is retiring in 2018, Loeffler is facing a tough special election battle for the remainder of her term in November, a race that includes an intra-party challenge from Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

Collins — still in self-quarantine after being exposed to the virus — said he was “sickened” by Loeffler’s actions.

“People are losing their jobs, their businesses, their retirements, and even their lives and Kelly Loeffler is profiting off their pain?” he said in a tweet.

The leading Democrat in the race, Raphael Warnock, called Loeffler’s conduct “unconscionable.”

“As the coronavirus pandemic is busy taking lives and livelihoods, Kelly Loeffler has been busy looking out for herself,” Warnock said on Twitter.

An analysis of disclosure reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group, showed that on February 13, Burr sold 33 stocks worth between $628,000 and $1.7 million dollars, including stocks in hotel companies hard hit by the coronavirus. The stock market began to plunge about a week later.

Senators only have to report financial transactions within ranges on disclosure reports, so the exact amount of Burr’s stock sales is unknown.

Loeffler and Sprecher sold up between $1.3 million and $3.2 million worth of stock in the weeks after she attended a private January 24 briefing for senators in which administration officials discussed the spread of coronavirus, according to a financial disclosure report she posted on Twitter.

In that report, Koeffler said she wasn’t notified of those transactions until Feb. 16, which she said was “proof” that the stock sales weren’t improper.

At the time of the briefing, Loeffler had been in office just three weeks.

Two other senators — Inhofe and Dianne Feinstein of California — also sold stock after the January 24 briefing.

In a statement, Inhofe, who is seeking re-election in November, said he did not attend the briefing and that the sales were part of an ongoing effort to shift his stock portfolio into mutual funds after he became chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. His sales were on a smaller scale than those of Burr and Loeffler, between $180,000 and $400,000.

A Feinstein spokesman said her holdings were in a blind trust run by her husband and she was not involved in the sale.

Members of Congress are permitted to own and trade stocks. However, trades have to be disclosed, and it is illegal for them to buy and sell stock based on insider information that isn’t available to the general public.

In addition to the stock sales themselves, statements made by Burr and Loeffler about coronavirus as their stocks were being sold have also come under scrutiny, as have Burr’s remarks at a private gathering in late February where he likened the coronavirus to the 1918 flu epidemic that killed millions of people worldwide.

On February 28, Loeffler took to Twitter to allege that “Democrats have dangerously and intentionally misled the American people on #Coronavirus readiness. Here’s the truth: @realDonald Trump & his administration are doing a great job working to keep Americans healthy & safe.”

On March 10, following a meeting with the president, she said on Twitter: “Concerned about #coronavirus? Remember this: The consumer is strong, the economy is strong, & jobs are growing, which puts us in the best economic position to tackle #COVID19 & keep Americans safe.”

By the time of those tweets, at least $355,000 worth of her stock had been sold and possibly as much as $950,000; her husband’s total was between $926,000 and $2.2 million, according to her disclosure report.

On February 7, Burr co-wrote an opinion article for Fox News in which he said that the United States “is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus” and said public health officials were moving “swiftly and decisively” to deal with the threat.

A week later, he began selling stock, and on February 27, he told a private meeting of North Carolina business leaders that coronavirus “is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” according to audio of the speech obtained by National Public Radio.

Burr also likened coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that is believed to have killed at least 17 million people worldwide, NPR reported.

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U.S. Senate: Republicans hold on to all 8 of their Southern seats

Rubio and Burr beat back challenges in Florida, North Carolina; Kennedy and Campbell will contest runoff in Louisiana

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

election-central-16(CFP) — Republicans held on to all eight of their Southern U.S. Senate seats, with Marco Rubio in Florida and Richard Burr in North Carolina turning back strong Democratic challengers.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana’s all-party “jungle” primary, State Treasurer John Kennedy and Democratic Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell will advance to a December 10 runoff for the open seat being vacated by Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter.

Kennedy led with 25 percent, with Campbell at 18 percent, edging out Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany at 15 percent.

Because Republicans already secured their 51-seat Senate majority, the Louisiana runoff will not affect the balance of power.

In addition to Rubio and Burr, Republican incumbents also won re-election in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

With the wins on November 8, Republicans will hold 23 of the 28 Southern Senate seats, with Louisiana still to be decided.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

In Florida, Rubio had initially decided to give up his Senate seat to pursue the Republican presidential nomination. But after losing the White House contest, he changed course and filed to run for a second term, improving the GOP ‘s prospects for keeping the seat.

Rubio took 52 percent, defeating Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who took 44 percent.

Alluding to his withdrawal from the presidential race in March, he told election night supporters in Miami, “This is a lot better than the last time I did one of these.”

Rubio, who had been a critic of Trump before reluctantly endorsing him, did not mention his party’s  victorious presidential standard-bearer in his speech, but he did make a plea for civility in politics.

“While we can disagree on issues, we cannot share a country where people hate each other because of their political affiliations,” Rubio said.

U.S. Senator Richard Burr

U.S. Senator Richard Burr

In North Carolina, Burr, seeking a third term, took 51 percent of the vote, defeating Deborah Ross, a former state legislator and Duke University law professor, who took 45 percent.

“I am truly humbled by the support I’ve received from people across this state,” Burr said at a victory celebration in Winston-Salem. “This is a victory for all of those who have believed in me.”

In a state notorious for exchanging Senate seats between parties, Burr becomes the first senator to win three consecutive terms since Jesse Helms in 1984.

Here are the other Southern Senate results:

Shelby

Shelby

Alabama: Republican U.S. Senator Richard Shelby won a seventh term by defeating Democrat Ron Crumpton, a marijuana rights activist. by a margin of 64-36 percent. At the end of his new term, Shelby will be 88 and will have served in Congress for 44 years.

boozman-sm

Boozman

Arkansas: Republican U.S. Senator John Boozman won a second term by taking 60-36 percent for Democrat Conner Eldridge, a former federal prosecutor from Fayetteville. Boozman suffered an aortic aneurysm in 2014 that kept him away from Washington for two months.

Isakson

Isakson

Georgia: Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson won a third term in the Senate by defeating Democrat Jim Barkdale, a wealthy Atlanta businessman, by a 55-41 percent margin. Isakson ran for re-election to a third term despite announcing in 2015 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

paul sm

Paul

Kentucky: Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul defeated Lexington Mayor Jim Gray by a margin of 57-43 percent. Paul had pursued re-election simultaneously with a presidential campaign until he dropped out of the White House race in February.

Lankford

Lankford

Oklahoma: Republican U.S. Senator James Lankford easily won his first full six-year term by defeating Democrat Mike Workman, a Tulsa political consultant, by a margin of 68-25 percent. In 2014, Lankford was elected to finish out the final two years of Tom Coburn’s term after he resigned.

Scott

Scott

South Carolina: Republican U.S. Senator Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, easily won a full six-year term by defeating Democrat Thomas Dixon, a Charleston pastor, by a margin of 61-36 percent. In 2014, Scott was elected to serve out the remaining two years of Jim DeMint’s term, after he resigned.

Republican U.S. Senate incumbents trying to fight off Democratic challengers

Florida and North Carolina are Senate battlegrounds; Louisiana holds all-party primary for Vitter’s seat

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

election-central-16(CFP) — Nine GOP-held Southern U.S. Senate seats are up for grabs in the November 8 election, with Republican incumbents heavily favored in six races.

The exceptions are Florida, where Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio is facing off against Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, and in North Carolina, where the GOP incumbent, U.S. Senator Richard Burr, is facing Deborah Ross, a former state legislator and Duke University law professor.

And in Louisiana, 24 candidates are running in an all-party “jungle” primary, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a December 10 runoff, which could potentially decide the balance of power in the Senate.

Pre-election polls have shown Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy in the lead, followed by Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Democrat; Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany of Lafayette; and Democrat Caroline Fayard, a New Orleans lawyer.

If Kennedy and Boustany can both clear the runoff, the GOP would be guaranteed of keeping the seat, now held by U.S. Senator David Vitter. But if Campbell or Fayard can come through, the December 10 runoff will be the last word on Senate races this year — and, if the Senate is closely divided, decide which party controls the chamber.

In addition to Rubio and Burr, Republican incumbents are seeking re-election in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

All are heavily favored, although the race in Georgia between U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson  and Democratic businessman Jim Barksdale is somewhat more competitive.

In Alabama, Richard Shelby faces Democrat Ron Crumpton, a marijuana rights activist; in Arkansas John Boozman is seeking a second term against Democrat Conner Eldridge, a former federal prosecutor from Fayetteville; and in Kentucky, Rand Paul is running against Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.

In Oklahoma,  James Lankford faces Mike Workman, a Tulsa political consultant, and in South Carolina, Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, faces Democrat Thomas Dixon, a Charleston pastor.

Trump’s Southern firewall shows cracks but no wholesale erosion

Three Alabama politicos flee from Trump; Rubio, Burr and McCrory are non-committal

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

southern states sm(CFP) — Donald Trump’s support among Southern elected officials has begun to crack after the release of an audiotape in which he made offensive comments about women, but, so far, there has been no wholesale deterioration of his Southern support heading into the second presidential debate.

U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia is the only Southern senator to distance herself from Trump, calling on him to “reexamine his candidacy” in light of remarks that surfaced on October 9 in which he bragged about being able to sexually assault women because of his celebrity.

“As a woman, a mother and a grandmother to three young girls, I am deeply offended by Mr. Trump’s remarks, and there is no excuse for the disgusting and demeaning language,” Capito said in a statement.

Comstock

Comstock

Two U.S. House incumbents in tough re-election battles, Reps. Barbara Comstock in Virginia and William Hurd in Texas, both announced they would not vote for Trump and want him to step aside as the Republican nominee.

But three other incumbent Republican politicians locked in tight re-election fights – U.S. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Richard Burr of North Carolina and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory – did not retract their support for Trump, although all three condemned his remarks.

Rubio, who offered Trump a tepid endorsement after losing to him in the GOP presidential primaries, went on Twitter to call Trump’s remarks “vulgar, egregious & impossible to justify.” But his opponent in the Senate race, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, said Rubio’s refusal to unendorse Trump amounted to “political cowardice.”

Murphy

Murphy

“Donald Trump is a threat to every value this country holds dear,” Murphy said in an op-ed in The Hill newspaper. “If Marco Rubio cannot withdraw his endorsement after this latest sickening news, then he should withdraw from the race.”

The most significant erosion of Trump’s support has come in conservative Alabama, where Republican Governor Robert Bentley has announced he won’t vote for Trump, and two GOP members of the U.S. House delegation, Reps. Martha Roby and Bradley Byrne, have called on him to step aside as their party’s presidential nominee.

“As disappointed as I’ve been with his antics throughout the campaign, I thought supporting the nominee was the best thing for our country and our party,” Roby said in a statement “Now, it is abundantly clear that the best thing for our country and our party is for Trump to step aside and allow a responsible, respectable Republican to lead the ticket.”

Byrne called Trump’s comments “disgraceful and appalling.”

“It is now clear Donald Trump is not fit to be President of the United States and cannot defeat Hillary Clinton,” he said in a statement. “I believe he should step aside and allow Governor Pence to lead the Republican ticket.”

Roby represents parts of metro Montgomery and southeast Alabama. Byrne represents metro Mobile and southwestern parts of the state. Both are seeking re-election, and neither race is expected to be competitive in November.

Bentley

Bentley

Bentley, who has been mired in his own scandal over a purported affair with a former aide, issued a short statement in which he said, “I certainly won’t vote for Hillary Clinton, but I cannot and will not vote for Donald Trump.”

Notably absent from the list of Alabama politicos distancing themselves from Trump is U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, one of his staunchest supporters in Congress. Trump announced Sessions would be in New York to help him prepare for his October 9 debate with Hillary Clinton, although Sessions’s office has not confirmed that information.

In Virginia, Comstock, who had not previously endorsed Trump, is in a tough re-election battle in the 10th District, based in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, against Democrat Democrat LuAnn Bennett, a real estate developer who is the ex-wife of former U.S. Rep. Jim Moran.

Comstock called Trump’s comments “disgusting, vile and disqualifying.”

“No woman should ever be subjected to this type of obscene behavior, and it is unbecoming of anybody seeking high office,” she said in a statement. “Donald Trump should step aside and allow our party to replace him with Mike Pence or another appropriate nominee from the Republican Party. I cannot in good conscience vote for Donald Trump, and I would never vote for Hillary Clinton.”

In Texas, Hurd, who had also not endorsed Trump, is battling to keep his 23rd District seat, which stretches from the suburbs of San Antonio across a wide swath of West Texas to the edge of El Paso.

As a black Republican running in a majority Latino district, Trump’s incendiary comments about Latinos had already put Hurd on the defensive in the race against the man he beat in 2014, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego.

Hurd issued a statement saying he could not vote for a candidate who degrades women and insults minorities. He said Trump should step aside in favor of “a true conservative to beat Hillary Clinton.”

Burr

Burr

Burr, who polls show is neck-and-neck with Democrat Deborah Ross in his re-election race in North Carolina, told Politico that he was “going to watch (Trump’s) level of contrition over the next few days to determine my level of support.”

McCrory, who trails Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper in recent polls, issued a statement in which he said, “I condemn in the strongest possible terms the comments made by Donald Trump regarding women. I find them disgusting,” But he stopped short of retracting his support for Trump or announcing that he would not vote for him.

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