WASHINGTON – US Senator Richard Burr will step down as chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Commission after the FBI seized his cell phone during a major escalation of an investigation into his stock trading before the downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said Burr contacted him Thursday morning to inform him of his decision to step aside temporarily during the investigation.
“We agreed that this decision would be in the interest of the committee and take effect tomorrow at the end of the day,” McConnell said in a statement.
Burr denies any misconduct, saying he relied solely on news reports to guide stock sale decisions, amid reports that he and other senators were selling stocks after private briefings on the risks of the corona virus crisis.
He told reporters in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday that he decided to step aside because he didn’t want the investigation to distract the intelligence committee from her work.
“I thought this was the best thing to do,” said Burr.
Burr’s lawyer, Alice Fisher, said in a statement that Burr was “actively participating” in the government investigation.
The Senate Panel is known for its two-pronged nature and will soon issue a comprehensive report led by Burr on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 United States presidential election. The US intelligence agency noted that Moscow wanted to interfere in the campaign to increase Trump’s candidacy.
Moscow denies such actions. Trump dismisses the allegations as a hoax.
Senator Mark Warner, the Democratic Commission vice-chairman who has worked closely with Burr, told reporters that he thought Burr had made the right choice to step aside temporarily and hoped the matter would be resolved as soon as possible.
The Republican Senator gave his phone to FBI agents after they served a search warrant at his Washington home.
The warrant marked an important step in Burr’s share sales investigation in mid-February, when he and other legislators regularly received information about the coronavirus outbreak and President Donald Trump, and some of his political allies downplayed the threat to the public.
Trump said he knew nothing about Burr’s decision and had not discussed Burr’s situation with anyone in the Justice Department.
“I don’t know about it … That’s a shame,” he told reporters.
“HIGHEST LEVELS” IN JUSTICE
The Democratic Party in Burr’s home state of North Carolina said he had to resign from the Senate. Burr, 64, had decided not to run a six-year Senate term for the fourth time in 2022, well ahead of reports on his share sales.
A senior Justice Department official said the FBI did not commit a robbery, but visited Burr’s home to pick up his cell phone. The order’s approval – important because it was served on a sitting senator – was obtained at the “highest level” of the Justice Department, the official said.
Reuters could not immediately know exactly when the search warrant was issued. The warrant was first reported by the Los Angeles Times late Wednesday.
The chairmanship of the Intelligence Commission is one of the most important functions in the Senate. The panel approves the President’s nominees to lead the country’s espionage agencies and oversees their activities and conducts most of its activities behind closed doors.
It was not immediately clear who would act as chairman. The three senators lining up for seniority on the Republican-led intelligence committee – Jim Risch, Marco Rubio and Susan Collins – all chair other committees.
The Republican leadership of the Senate will decide who will take the position.
Other senators whose stock trading has been investigated have denied trading on coronavirus information. Republican Senator Kelly Loffler has strongly denied the abuses related to her sale of millions of dollars in shares in the weeks since lawmakers were first notified of the virus.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, an Democrat from the intelligence agency, has submitted documents to the FBI about her husband’s stock trading showing that she was not involved, a Feinstein spokesman said Thursday.
Burr’s decision was reminiscent of Democratic Senator Bob Menendez’s decision to step down as a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015, as he faced corruption. Those charges were eventually dropped.