- U.S. Senator Richard Burr has faced public scrutiny after records revealed that he sold thousands of dollars worth of stock prior to the market’s crash in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Burr was also reported to have warned a small party of the severity of the issue while the Trump administration was delivering a much more relaxed message to the rest of the nation.
- Several other U.S. senators including Kelly Loeffler, Dianne Feinstein, and James Inhofe also made stock sales prior to the escalation of the U.S. health crisis.
- Some are concerned that the lawmakers might have exploited their early access to special information by selling stocks, but all have denied this is the case.
- Amid criticisms, Burr invited the Senate Ethics Committee to review his sales to promote full transparency.
Burr in Hot Water
Several U.S. Senators have come under fire after public records revealed they sold personal stocks just before the market crashed under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic.
Documents show that Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and his wife sold hundreds of thousands worth of stocks in 33 separate transactions in mid-February. Collectively the stocks were worth between $628,000 and $1.7 million, but exact numbers are not clear as the records display the transactions in ranges. Some of the stocks sold were holdings in a hotel and resort line that has since lost two-thirds of its value.
Just days before Burr made these transactions, he wrote an op-ed for Fox News saying that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.”
Burr serves as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a position in which he receives regular briefings on safety threats to the country. According to Reuters, the committee was getting updates about the outbreak on a daily basis around the time Burr sold his stocks. Senate aides told NBC that the reports the committee received in January and February included non-public information about the coronavirus that remains classified.
On Feb. 27, two weeks after Burr sold his stocks, he spoke to a small, nonpartisan group at a social club in Washington, D.C. delivering a concerning message.
“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.”
The same day, Donald Trump downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19 to the rest of the country, saying, “it’s going to disappear.”
“It could get worse before it gets better,” Trump said on Feb. 27. “It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens.”
NPR reported that among the attendees at the luncheon where Burr spoke were companies and organizations that contributed to Burr’s election campaign several years ago.
On his Twitter page, Burr called the NPR story a “tabloid-style hit piece.” He addressed the accusations in a string of tweets, saying the luncheon was held by the North Carolina State Society.
“It was publicly advertised and widely attended,” Burr wrote on Thursday. “NPR knew, but did not report, that attendees also included many non-members, bipartisan congressional staff, and representatives from the governor’s office.”
“Every state has a state society. They aren’t ‘secretive’ or ‘high-dollar donor’ organizations,” Burr added. “They’re great civic institutions that bring people in D.C. together for events, receptions, and lunches.”
Burr’s representatives also addressed the criticism he has faced.
“Senator Burr has been banging the drum about the importance of public health preparedness for more than 20 years,” spokesperson Caitlin Carroll told NBC. “His message has always been, and continues to be, that we must be prepared to protect American lives in the event of a pandemic or bio-attack.”
Carroll also addressed Burr’s stock sales.
“Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak,” Carroll said.
More Senators Under Fire
Burr was not the only one to sell big stocks right before the market dropped. According to public records, a handful of other senators did the same.
Records reveal that Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and her husband, a chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, reported millions of dollars worth of stock sales across 27 transactions beginning at the end of January. Loeffler began selling stock on Jan. 24, the day she was apart of a Senate Health Committee private briefing with updates on the coronavirus.
Like Burr, Loeffler sold sales in companies that have suffered from the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, she and her husband bought between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of stock in a teleworking software company that has spiked in value as more citizens are working remotely.
“I want to set the record straight: This is a ridiculous & baseless attack,” Loeffler wrote in a tweet. “I don’t make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.”
On Jan. 27, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) sold as much as $400,000 worth of stock in multiple companies including Apple, PayPal, and a real estate company. In two separate transactions on Jan. 31 and Feb. 18, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and her husband sold $1.5 million to $6 million worth of stock in a bio-technology company. Feinstein also serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Inhofe and Feinstein’s financial moves seem to be routine. Both have said their investments are made without their involvement and noted they were not at the Senate Health Committee briefing on Jan. 24.
“Reports that I sold any assets are incorrect, as are reports that I was at a Jan. 24 briefing on coronavirus, which I was unable to attend,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Under Senate rules, I report my husband’s financial transactions. I have no input into his decisions. My husband in January and February sold shares of a cancer therapy company. This company is unrelated to any work on the coronavirus and the sale was unrelated to the situation.”
Calls for Resignation
Under the STOCK act, it is illegal for members of Congress to participate in trading based on nonpublic information. After the recent reports came out yesterday, multiple figures questioned the ethics of Sen. Burr’s stock sales and called upon him to step down from his position.
Texas Democrat Rep. Joaquin Castro addressed the controversy on Twitter.
“As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I know that our committee receives sensitive information, including assessments and projections, before others in Congress and the general public (if ever),” Castro wrote. “Sen. Burr should suspend his chairmanship pending investigation.”
Fox News Host Tucker Carlson made fiery remarks about Burr during his show on Thursday night.
“He dumped his shares in hotel stocks so he wouldn’t lose money, and then he stayed silent,” Carlson said. “Maybe there is an honest explanation for what he did. If there is, he should share it with us immediately. Otherwise, he must resign from the Senate and face prosecution for insider trading.”
U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also called for Burr’s resignation.
“Burr knew how bad it would be. He told the truth to his wealthy donors, while assuring the public that we were fine,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “THEN he sold off $1.6 million in stock before the fall. He needs to resign.”
Several hours later, AOC reiterated a similar message about Sen. Loeffler, calling for her resignation as well.
“It is stomach-churning that the first thoughts these Senators had to a dire & classified #COVID briefing was how to profit off this crisis,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.
Burr’s Call For Investigation
On Friday, in the midst of all the backlash, Burr said that he made a request to the Senate Ethics Committee to review his recent transactions.
“I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision on the sale of stocks February 13,” Burr said in a statement Friday morning. “Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time.”
“Understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency,” Burr added.
See what others are saying: (New York Times) (NBC) (Los Angeles Times)
Biden To Pull All U.S. Troops From Afghanistan by Sept. 11
- President Biden declared Wednesday that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, which also marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
- The Afghanistan war is the longest war the U.S. has ever been in. It has resulted in the deaths of 2,400 American troops, injured and killed almost 100,000 civilians, and cost about $2 trillion.
- Some praised the decision as a key step to address seemingly endless wars and promote diplomacy.
- Many experts and defense officials, however, have warned the withdrawal could undermine American goals in the region and embolden the Taliban, which is currently the strongest it has been since the U.S. invasion removed the group from power in 2001.
Biden Announces Troop Removal Amid Growing Violence
President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks that drew the U.S. into its longest war in history.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021,” Biden said in an afternoon speech. “It’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for America’s troops to come home.’’
The decision comes as Biden nears the May 1 deadline set under a February 2020 peace deal by the administration of former President Donald Trump to bring the troops home from the war, which has killed nearly 2,400 troops, injured and killed nearly 100,000 civilians, and cost about $2 trillion.
Biden had previously said that it would be hard to meet the date after taking office, but even with the extended timeline, many experts and defense officials have warned against the move.
The U.S. first entered the war to oust the Taliban government, which was harboring al-Qaeda militants involved in planning the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban was removed within months, but the group still had support in parts of the country and steadily regained territory and strength.
Now, almost two decades later, the group is the strongest it has been since the 2001 invasion, and according to reports, controls or has influence over half the country. The situation has also escalated in the months after Trump, during his last week in office, reduced the official number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500, which is the lowest level since 2001.
As the U.S. has scaled down its operations, the Taliban has taken control of major highways and tried to cut off cities and towns in surges that have exhausted Afghan security forces. Violence has also ramped up in recent months.
According to a U.N. report released Wednesday, nearly 1,800 civilians were killed or wounded in the first three months of the year, a nearly 30% increase from the same period last year.
Notably, U.S. intelligence agencies have said that they do not believe Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations present an immediate threat to strike the U.S. from Afghanistan, an assessment that reportedly played a big role in Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces.
However, many experts are more concerned about how the move will impact Afghanistan and its citizens.
Concerns Over Withdrawal
The Pentagon has warned against removing American troops from the region until Afghan security forces can effectively fight back against the Taliban.
As a result, critics of the plan have argued that withdrawal will leave the forces — which have limited capacities and until now have been funded and trained by the U.S. — entirely in the dust
Beyond that, many also worry that the move could undermine the entire goal of the 2001 invasion by empowering al-Qaeda operates that remains in the country and who could become emboldened once the U.S. troops left.
Some experts and Afghan politicians have said that withdrawing from the country without a solid peace deal in place could end in concentrating more power in the hands of the Taliban. After a long delay following the U.S. agreement in February of last year, peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban finally started up in September.
But those talks have since stalled, partly due to Biden’s win and the anticipation of a possible change in policy under the new administration.
While other countries have recently made moves to restart the talks, and there are a number of possible options on the table, nothing is set in stone. American commanders, who have long said a peace deal with the Taliban is the best security measure for the U.S., have argued that the U.S. will need to use the promise of withdrawing their forces as a condition for a good deal.
Now, the U.S. has taken a major bargaining chip off the table, causing concerns that if a deal is struck, the already weakened Afghan government will make key concessions to the Taliban. Many Afghan citizens who oppose the Taliban worry that if the group secures a role in a power-sharing agreement, it could eventually take over the government and re-impose the harsh rule it imposed before the U.S. removed it in 2001. The leadership was particularly tough on women, who were largely barred from public life.
Biden’s decision has sparked a divided front from both political parities, though Republicans have largely remained united against the move.
“It is insane to withdraw at this time given the conditions that exist on the ground in Afghanistan,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. “A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous. President Biden will have, in essence, canceled an insurance policy against another 9/11.”
Many Democrats, however, have argued that U.S. presence in the region is not helping the U.S. achieve its foreign policy goals, and that if withdrawal is based on conditional approaches, the troops will never be able to leave.
Others have also applauded the plan as a careful solution and will still emphasize diplomatic efforts in the region while simultaneously removing the U.S. from a highly unpopular and expensive war.
“The President doesn’t want endless wars. I don’t want endless wars. And neither do the American people. ” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday. “It’s refreshing to have a thought-out plan with a set timetable instead of the President waking up one morning getting out of bed, saying what just pops into his head and then having the generals having walked it back.”
In a series of tweets Wednesday, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, said had spoken to Biden, and emphasized that the two nations would continue to work together.
“’Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along,” he wrote.
The Taliban, for its part, has focused more on the fact that the initial timeline had been delayed.
“We are not agreeing with delay after May 1,” a spokesperson said on television Tuesday. “Any delay after May 1 is not acceptable for us.”
It is currently unclear how that stance might affect the situation, especially when it comes to peace deal negotiations.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (TIME)
Matt Gaetz Reportedly Venmo’d Accused Sex Trafficker, Who Then Sent Money To Teen
- A report published by The Daily Beast Thursday alleges that Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.) sent $900 through Venmo to accused sex trafficker Joel Greenberg, who then used the funds to pay three young women, including one teenager.
- Gaetz is currently under federal investigation as part of a broader inquiry into Greenberg, a former politician who has been charged with 33 counts, including sex trafficking an underage girl.
- Investigators are reportedly looking into the involvement of politicians with women who were recruited online for sex and paid in cash, as well as whether Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old girl and violated sex trafficking laws by paying for her to travel with him.
- Greenberg’s lawyer did not comment on the new allegations but said Thursday his client would soon enter a plea deal and implied that Greenberg would testify as a witness against Gaetz. Meanwhile, Gaetz has accused The Daily Beast of spreading “rumors, gossip and self-serving misstatements.”
Gaetz’s Alleged Venmo Payments
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.) allegedly sent money via Venmo to accused sex trafficker Joel Greenberg, who then used the money to pay three young women, including at least one teenage girl, according to a new report from The Daily Beast.
Greenberg, a former local Flordia politician and an associate of Gaetz, was indicted last summer on 33 counts, including sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl. He initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, but his lawyers said in court Thursday that he would plead guilty as part of a plea deal.
Legal experts say the move almost certainly indicates that Greenberg plans to cooperate as a witness against Gaetz, who is currently under investigation by the Justice Department as part of a broader probe into Greenberg.
According to The New York Times, among other things, the DOJ inquiry is looking into their involvement with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and paid cash, as well as whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel with him in violation of sex trafficking laws.
Investigators reportedly believe that Greenberg met the women through a website for people willing to go on dates in exchange for gifts and money, and then arranged for them to meet with himself and associates including Gaetz, The Times reported.
The new report from The Daily Beast, published Thursday, appears to support this narrative. According to the outlet, which viewed the transactions before they were made private this week, Gaetz sent Greenberg two late-night Venmo payments totaling $900 in May 2018.
In the text field of the first payment, Gaetz wrote “Test.” In the second, he asked Greenberg to “hit up” a teenager who he allegedly referred to by her nickname. The Daily Beast did not publish the name of the girl “because the teenager had only turned 18 less than six months before.”
The next morning, Greenberg transferred a total of $900 to three different young women using the same app.
One of the transfers was titled “Tuition,” and the other two were both listed as “School.” The Daily Beast also said it was able to obtain “partial records” of Greenbergs Venmo, which is not publicly available.
Those records, the outlet reported, show that the two men are connected through Venmo to at least one other woman who Greenberg paid with a government-funded credit card, and at least two other women who received payments from Greenberg.
Gaetz, for his part, has not directly addressed the latest allegations. A representative from the Logan Circle Group, an outside PR firm, provided The Daily Beast with a statement from the congressman.
“The rumors, gossip and self-serving misstatements of others will be addressed in due course by my legal team,” the statement said, with the firm also informing the outlet that their lawyers would be “closely monitoring your coverage.”
Greenberg’s defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, also declined requests to comment, but during a press conference Thursday, he implied that the plea deal his client is expected to accept spelled trouble for Gaetz.
“I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller said.
The Daily Beast story also comes amid reports that that the FBI has widened its probe of Gaetz. According to The Times, sources familiar with the inquiry have said investigators are also looking into a trip he took to the Bahamas with other Florida Republicans and several women.
Sources said the trip took place shortly after Gaetz was elected to Congress in 2016, and that the FBI has already questioned witnesses about whether the women had sex with the men in exchange for money and free travel.
It is illegal to trade sex for something of value if prosecutors can provide the exchange involved force, fraud, or coercion.
The Times also reported that investigators are now additionally looking into Gaetz’s alleged involvement in discussions to run a third-party candidate in a State Senate race to make it easier for an associate of his who was running for the seat to win.
The act of recruiting so-called “ghost candidates” who run for office purely to divert votes from one candidate is not usually illegal. However, paying a ghost candidate is normally considered a violation of campaign finance laws.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (The New York Times) (The Hill)
Biden Announces Executive Actions on Gun Violence
- President Biden unveiled several executive actions on Thursday to address gun violence in America, which he described as “an epidemic” and “an international embarrassment.”
- Biden’s measures include new limits on “ghost guns,” which are built from separate parts and usually do not have traceable serial numbers, as well as stabilizing braces, which functionally turn pistols into more lethal weapons.
- Biden also said he would direct the Justice Department to publish a model for states to use in implementing “red flag” laws that allow law enforcement or family to petition a court to temporarily block a person in crisis from accessing firearms.
- The president characterized these actions as first steps, noting that congressional approval will be needed for his agenda and urging the chambers to take action.
Biden’s Plan for Gun Violence
President Joe Biden announced a series of executive actions on Thursday aimed at addressing gun violence in America.
“Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it’s an international embarrassment,” he said in remarks from the Rose Garden. “The idea that we have so many people dying every single day from gun violence in America is a blemish on our character as a nation.”
Among other measures outlined, the president said he will tighten restrictions on so-called “ghost guns,” which are firearms built at home by buying individual parts or kits to assemble guns that often lack serial numbers, making them hard to identify and trace.
Another rule will require devices to meet the requirements of the National Firearms Act if they are marketed as a stabilizing brace that can functionally turn a pistol into a short-barreled rifle. The alleged shooter who killed 10 people in Boulder last month appeared to have used a pistol with an arm brace, which Biden said made the weapon more stable and accurate.
Additionally, Biden will also direct the Justice Department to publish a model for states to use to enact “red flag” laws, which allow family members or law enforcement officials to petition a court to temporarily ban a person in crisis from accessing firearms. He will also as require the agency to publish an annual report on firearms trafficking.
In addition to those actions, the president said that he will nominate gun control advocate David Chipman to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has not had a permanent director since 2015.
Finally, Biden also emphasized that his administration will invest in community violence intervention programs. That includes proposing $5 billion for the initiatives over the course of eight years as part of his infrastructure plan.
Mounting Press and Continued Gridlock
Biden’s announcement comes as he is facing pressure from gun control activists and Democrats to act on gun violence following the mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder.
Many have also condemned the president for not making gun control a top priority for his first days in office, as he promised during his campaign.
According to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, 57% of Americans disapprove of the way Biden has handled gun violence so far, and two-thirds “believe reducing gun violence should be a higher priority than protecting the right to own a wide variety of guns.”
Biden, for his part, has repeatedly pressured Congress to take action on gun violence, specifically pointing to two bills passed by the House last month. Both were dead on arrival in the divided Senate. In his remarks Thursday, the president characterized the actions he outlined as the first steps.
“This is just a start, we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go, it seems like we always have a long way to go.”
However, he also acknowledged that further, substantial action will require the approval of Congress, which he urged to close background check loopholes, ban assault weapons, and narrow protections for gun manufacturers from litigation.