Richard Burr told a small group what he knew about COVID-19. Why not the rest of us?

The Editorial Board
·4 min read

The Tar Heel Circle, a nonpartisan group of North Carolina businesses and organizations, offers its members “interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration and the private sector.” Cost of membership ranges from $500 to $10,000, but whatever the amount it was more than worth it on Feb. 27.

That’s the day members of the Tar Heel Circle held a luncheon at the Capitol Hill Club where they heard remarks from North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. According to a secret recording obtained by NPR, Burr had a dire — and perhaps financially significant — message for the group. Even as President Trump was downplaying the threat from the coronavirus that had just arrived in the U.S., the senator warned that the virus was going to spread rapidly, perhaps even on the scale of the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

Burr told the Circle members, “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. It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

NPR reported that Burr, who help write legislation outlining the federal response to disease outbreaks — the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act — was prescient about how the COVID-19 pandemic would unfold. He said: “There will be, I’m sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, let’s close schools for two weeks, everybody stay home.”

That alarming forecast was preceded by Burr’s selling off a substantial portion of his stock portfolio in mid-February before the COVID-19 outbreak sent the stock market into a nosedive, according to a report from the Center for Responsive Politics. The report posted on the Center’s website, OpenSecrets.org, said, “Burr and his wife Brooke sold between $581,000 and $1.5 million in publicly traded stocks on Feb. 13 and didn’t buy any new positions, according to a recent financial disclosure filed with the Senate.” The stock the Burrs sold included shares in hotel companies’ whose value fell sharply in the selloff, the report said.

Burr had a clear grasp of the danger ahead. Why did he only share it with a group whose member companies, according to NPR, contributed more than $100,000 on their own or through their political committees to Burr’s last re-election campaign? Why didn’t Burr provide his assessment to all the constituents he is supposed to serve, as well as the national media?

Such a warning from a man who has knowledge of pandemic preparedness and has the benefit of top secret briefings on threats to the U.S. might have moved N.C. officials and individuals to act earlier. Perhaps some travel would have been called off or financial investments changed. We don’t know if members of the Tar Heel Circle were helped by Burr’s warning. We do know that the general public was not.

Burr’s office did not respond to questions submitted by NPR. Burr’s spokesman 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 confronting a disease outbreak, the most important tool is full and clear information. Burr confined that level of candor to the Capitol Hill luncheon.

Burr’s failure to express a general alarm is regrettable, but not surprising. Although he was the national security adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he at times has taken his cues on national security from the president. He agreed to a White House request that he call reporters and dispute published reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election. He also echoed Trump’s unsupported claim that Ukraine tried to skew the election.

Now it appears North Carolina’s senior senator was wary of publicly disputing Trump’s efforts to calm the financial markets by downplaying the coronavirus threat. Two days before Burr spoke to the Tar Heel Circle, a White House spokesman said: “The virus remains low risk domestically because of the containment actions taken by this Administration since the first of the year.”

Burr knew better, but he didn’t let everyone know.