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WASHINGTON — A powerful Republican senator who is under federal investigation for selling stocks after receiving private briefings on the coronavirus outbreak is stepping down as the leader of the committee that oversees the nation’s spy agencies.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, will leave the position Friday, according to a statement from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Sen. Burr contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the pendency of the investigation,” McConnell said Thursday. “We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of the day tomorrow.”
The announcement comes a day after FBI agents served Burr with a search warrant and seized a cellphone that belonged to him at his DC-area home, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The search warrant represented a significant escalation in the federal probe of Burr’s stock activities in the weeks before the coronavirus outbreak decimated US markets. In February, he unloaded between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks as he was receiving regular private briefings about the virus. In March, when ProPublica first revealed the stock sales, Burr said he "relied solely on public news reports" to guide his stock activity and asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review the issue. But since then, the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission have been scrutinizing the sales. Members of Congress are banned from using the non-public information they glean as lawmakers to inform stock transactions.
Burr has served as chair of the committee — which partially oversees the FBI — since 2015, and has served as a member for more than a decade (which he will continue to do). He told reporters on Thursday that he didn’t want to “become a distraction to the committee work — a committee that’s really, really important to the national security.”
“I thought this was the best thing to do,” he said.
Burr isn’t the only senator to face scrutiny over recent stock sales. Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican who joined the Senate in January, has faced backlash for selling millions in stocks the same day all senators received a private briefing about the coronavirus outbreak.
And like Burr, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former chair of the Intelligence Committee and current member, has been asked to provide information to federal agents about stock sales, her office confirmed on Thursday. She reported selling stocks in a biotechnology company in late January, but has said she’s “held all assets in a blind trust of which I have no control.”
“Senator Feinstein was asked some basic questions by law enforcement about her husband’s stock transactions, as I think all offices in the initial story were,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “She was happy to voluntarily answer those questions to set the record straight and provided additional documents to show she had no involvement in her husband’s transactions. There have been no follow up actions on this issue.”
Burr’s decision to step down as the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee raises questions about the future of the committee’s Russia investigation and is sure to please supporters of President Donald Trump who have criticized Burr’s commitment to the probe, which has targeted members of the president’s inner circle. The move also comes as Trump’s allies in the Senate have launched investigations that the president has sought into his opponents — probes that Democrats have dubbed politically motivated.
Since early 2017, Burr and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the committee, have led Congress’ only bipartisan inquiry into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election — as well as possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Kremlin.
Burr has faced backlash from both Democrats and Republicans for his handling of the investigation. Democrats have argued he hasn’t gone far enough, while Republicans have slammed him for going too far — especially when the committee subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son.
But Burr and Warner have maintained a strong working relationship overall. Burr “made the right choice in temporarily stepping aside,” Warner said Thursday, adding that he hopes “this issue gets resolved as quickly as possible.”
Now, as the committee prepares to release the hotly anticipated fifth and final volume in its Russia report — the chapter that deals with counterintelligence and the collusion question — it’s unclear who will take over the panel. A spokesperson for McConnell said his office had no further information to share beyond the leader’s statement.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is the next most senior Republican on the committee, but already serves as chair of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee. The next two most senior Republicans, Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, had no idea Burr had even stepped down when first asked about the decision on Thursday.
“Oh wow. I don't know what to say, I truly didn't know about it,” Collins said. “He's been an excellent chairman of the committee."
Asked if he might be the new chair of the committee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio expressed confusion. “Um, why?” he said, prompting reporters to share the news with him.
“I haven't heard that,” he replied.
Later, Rubio told reporters, “I’ll do whatever they ask, but it’s not up to me.”
Either way, Warner says he expects the committee will maintain its bipartisan approach to the final Russia report as the panel rounds out the investigation.
“We’ve gone through four volumes of this report, all unanimous,” he said.
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