While the Trump family has been repeatedly accused of using public office to inject taxpayer cash into their businesses, two reports from the first full week of the coronavirus crisis depict a profound ethical failure by Republican senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler.
On Thursday, ProPublica reported on Burr’s decision on February 13 to sell somewhere between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings in 33 different transactions; at the time, he was receiving daily COVID-19 briefings as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The deals included a sale of $150,000 worth of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, which has since lost two-thirds of its stock price. He also sold up to $100,000 in shares of Extended Stay America — the value of those shares have since halved.
A week before his sale, Burr wrote in an op-ed for Fox News that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” But two weeks later, he privately shared a different outlook at a luncheon featuring organizations that had donated to him a total of $100,000 when he ran for reelection in 2016. “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,” he said, according to a recording obtained by NPR. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
Hours after the NPR report came out, Burr said on Twitter that it amounted to a “tabloid-style hit piece.” But when the furor hadn’t died down by Friday, he announced that he would request the Senate Ethics Committee — not known for its timeliness or punitiveness — to investigate his actions.
Also on Thursday, the Daily Beast reported that Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler dumped stock co-owned with her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher — the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange — on January 24. That same day, the Senate Health Committee, of which she is a member, hosted a private all-senators briefing on the coronavirus. In her first transaction that day, she sold somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 of a company that has since lost over half its value. The Daily Beast reports that in January and February, she sold between $1,275,000 and $3,100,000 in stock jointly owned with her husband. The 15 options she and her husband sold lost more than a third of their value on average. As late as March 10, Loeffler — the richest person in the Senate, worth around $500 million — was telling the public that “the consumer is strong, the economy is strong, [and] jobs are growing, which puts us in the best economic position to tackle” the coronavirus.
It also appears that Republican Jim Inhofe dumped stock after the January 24 Senate Health Committee meeting:
While Burr had previously stated he will not run for reelection in 2022, it’s unlikely that Loeffler’s stock sales just three weeks after her appointment to Georgia’s junior Senate seat will aid her election prospects come November. Already, there are calls for resignations coming from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Tucker Carlson. (If that trifecta has mobilized together against your cause, seek public-relations assistance.)
The emerging scandal is likely to bring more scrutiny to the practice of members of Congress holding individual stocks. In December, a Data for Progress poll found that 52 percent of respondents supported a proposal to restrict senators and representatives from playing the market. In 2018, Elizabeth Warren proposed such a bill banning members of Congress from owning individual stocks.
As Republican senators appear to profiteer from a crisis that has already caused unemployment to skyrocket and could kill a lot of Americans, other highlights from the Grand Old Party this week include the president’s reported attempt to deny a coronavirus vaccine from other countries and Senator Ron Johnson’s casual suggestion that the prospect of millions of American dead is an acceptable risk.
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