To write about politics is to become jaded. Time and time again, you watch people you admire disappoint you, cynicism win the day, and idealism get seduced by power, ego, and money. 

This was always true. But it’s especially true in the Trump era, when the president has turned bad faith into standard operating procedure. So it takes an exceptional kind of venality to pierce the armor of numbness and provoke seething, go-grab-the-pitchforks rage. 

In other words, Senator Richard Burr.  

On February 3, Burr and Senator Lamar Alexander wrote an op-ed for Fox News, saying that while Americans are “rightly concerned” about the coronavirus, “Thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration.”

The last two months have shown that the administration was anything but prepared. The U.S. is still playing catch-up on tests, states are begging for ventilators, and hospitals are pleading for protective equipment. Most important, the country didn’t implement social-distancing early enough to contain the virus’s spread when it could have. 

No president could have stopped the coronavirus from reaching American soil. But you can lay the blame for our current mad scramble to avoid calamity directly at Trump’s feet. Throughout January and February, the president downplayed the threat, insisting that everything was under control even as top-secret intelligence briefings showed that disaster loomed. That Trump now wants to retcon history doesn’t change the reality that his failure to take COVID-19 seriously will likely cost thousands of lives. 

As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Health Committee, Burr was privy to classified and private briefings on how bad things were about to get. While Trump was gaslighting to prop up the stock market, Burr could have warned Americans about the incoming pandemic and forced the administration to confront it. 

Instead, 10 days after co-authoring that rosy op-ed, he sold off most of his stock portfolio in 33 transactions totaling between $628,000 and $1.7 million, ProPublica reported last Thursday. A week later, the stock market began what’s turned into an ongoing collapse.

A week after that, on February 27, Burr told a group of well-heeled business elites that shit was about to hit the fan—travel bans, school shutdowns, military hospitals, etc. “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: [The coronavirus] is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” Burr said in a private meeting. (NPR obtained a recording and published it last Thursday.)  

At a press conference that same day, Trump promised it would soon be over: “When you have 15 [cases] and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” 

Burr, who knew better, didn’t say a word. 

By Sunday evening, the U.S. had nearly 33,000 documented COVID-19 cases and more than 400 deaths. It’s estimated that more than 3 million people filed for unemployment last week—including more than 80,000 from North Carolina—and the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis told Bloomberg News this weekend that unemployment could reach 30 percent by June. That’s Great Depression territory. 

(Adding insult to injury, Burr and his Republican colleagues tried to ram through a $1.8 trillion stimulus package that allocates $50 billion, few strings attached, to bail out the airline industry and creates a $425 billion slush fund for the Treasury Department to give to whomever it wants—quite possibly, Trump’s friends and family. Republicans then got the vapors when Democrats objected. On Tuesday, after the INDY went to press, they reached a deal that included oversight for this fund.) 

In a better world, Burr would have not only been forced to resign by now, but he’d be staring down an ignominious frogmarch in a shiny set of silver bracelets, too. As it is, neither of those things is likely. On Friday, Burr asked the do-nothing Senate Ethics Committee to review his actions, buying time for the storm to pass. 

He’s not the only lawmaker who appears to have acted on inside information. Newly appointed Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler and her husband, who runs the New York Stock Exchange, dumped millions in stocks after a private January 24 Health Committee briefing on the coronavirus. She also purchased shares in Citrix, which offers telework software. 

Both Burr and Loeffler deny they engaged in insider trading or violated the STOCK Act, the 2012 law barring members of Congress from using nonpublic information to trade shares. (Burr, notably, was one of only three senators to vote against it.) Burr says he based his financial decisions on publicly available information. (Relatedly, I have some Florida swampland to sell you.) Loeffler said she doesn’t manage her family’s portfolio and didn’t know about the sale until weeks later. (Also for sale: the Brooklyn Bridge.)  

Even giving Burr the benefit of the doubt, here’s the bottom line: He knew enough to look out for his interests, which means he knew enough to look out for yours. He simply chose not to.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at

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One reply on “How to Profit from the Plague”

  1. No surprises here.
    Time and again, the so-called, oh-so- postured ‘Party of The People’ ; The Republican Party is shown to be comprised of those who treat the people as sheep to be led and sheared for the benefit of …. wealthy Republicans.
    I wont say there are no slime-balls who are Democrats, but the painfully obvious fact is that since Trump took office, being a blatantly amoral and unrepentant self-serving A-Hole has become S.O.P. for Republicans in office and commentators on FOX News.

    Trump LIES….The Republicans LIE…and FOX backs them up with still MORE LIES.

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