Politics & Policy

History Called — and Senator Burr Called His Broker

U.S. Senate Intelligence Committe Chairman Richard Burr in Washington, February 26, 2019. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
People are so vulnerable to conspiracy theories and misinformation in part because they believe they're being lied to by their leaders. They aren't wrong.

Item: The Trump administration is asking the states to muck up their unemployment-claims reports in order to avoid spooking the markets. According to the New York Times, Gay Gilbert of the Office of Employment Insurance sent out an email instructing the states to share only “generalities,” not the actual numbers: “States should not provide numeric values to the public.”

Item: Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) sold between $1.5 million and $6 million in stock in a California biotech company right before the recent market crash. Feinstein’s spokesman told the Times that the senator was not directly involved in the sale. “She has no involvement in her husband’s financial decisions,” the spokesman said.

Item: On February 26, President Trump described the coronavirus situation this way: “You have 15 people, 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.” On March 17, he described it this way: “I have always known this is a real pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

Item: While Senator Richard Burr (R., N.C.) was offering a relatively rosy account of the coronavirus threat in public, he was taking a much more alarmed — and realistic — view of the threat in a private audience with a businessmen’s association. Senator Burr sold as much as $1.7 million in shares in 33 transactions on February 13. Burr, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, says that he based this decision on “publicly available sources,” especially CNBC’s Asia bureaus, calling to mind Hillary Rodham Clinton’s claim that her remarkable talent for trading cattle futures was a result of reading the Wall Street Journal.

Item: On February 10, President Trump made this prediction about the coronavirus at a rally: “It miraculously goes away.” His contention was that April’s warmer weather would end the epidemic.

Item: Senator Kelly Loeffler and her husband unloaded millions of dollars in stock over a couple of weeks — beginning on the day she received a coronavirus briefing. Her husband is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.

Item: On March 13, Trump was asked about the lack of access to coronavirus testing. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said.

Item: Senator James Inhofe (R., Okla.) sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in shares of Apple, PayPal, and a real-estate-management company on January 27. According to the Times, Senator Inhofe “said that when he became chairman of the Armed Services Committee in late 2018, he had instructed his financial adviser to begin selling off all equities in favor of mutual funds and that the January sales were a part of that transition.”

The senators’ explanations run the gamut from the more or less plausible, at a glance, to the barely plausible. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that these stories may be plausible on a case-by-case basis but that that plausibility requires a level of trust that Washington as a whole has not earned. And maybe Hunter Biden has some special charm known only to Ukrainians.

Preet Bharara’s contention that members of Congress should be prohibited from owning individual stocks during their tenure in office may seem extreme, but, given current political realities, it may also be the simplest and most direct measure that is available to us. There will be investigations, of course, and these should come sooner rather than later, but prevention would be better than retribution in these matters, because the point here is not to prevent a few senators from purging their portfolios but rather to defend and fortify — or perhaps restore — the credibility of our institutions.

Bill Clinton, who was less a moderate than a frustrated radical, complained that he was serving Dwight Eisenhower’s third (and then fourth) term, and that after he died he hoped to be reincarnated as the bond market, because the bond market gets to push everybody around. The bond markets are a lot less pushy than they used to be (at least for the moment), but the stock market still carries a big stick. President Trump, who had been staking his reelection bid on a strong economy as evidenced by rising share prices — never mind that he had once bitterly mocked Democrats for boasting of the rising stock market during the Obama administration — tried to talk down the coronavirus threat in the earliest days of the pandemic because he did not want to see the markets tank. The stratagem was obvious. (Donald Trump is nothing if not obvious.) What Senator Burr was doing in saying one thing in public and something very different in private — while selling threatened shares — is at least a little less obvious. Perhaps he was simply afraid of taking a line different from the president’s in public. He wouldn’t be the first Republican to suffer from that problem. “It was cowardice, not corruption!” is not exactly a rousing defense, but perhaps he has another one.

If you want to know why people are so vulnerable to conspiracy theories and to misinformation, it is in part because they believe that they are being lied to by those with whom they have entrusted great power, that the truth is being kept from them by design. They are not wrong about that: The New York Times has the emails explicitly directing state authorities to keep the facts — “numeric values” — from “the public.”

Right now, the question for Trump, et al., is whether they will be reelected. But there are military hospital ships anchored off both coasts, and ventilators and other necessities are in short supply, for a reason. Perhaps we will be successful at “flattening the curve” and avoiding a pandemic that is as bad as it has the potential to be. These clowns in Washington had better pray perfervidly that we are successful. Senator Burr is not expected to run again in 2022. His retirement is understood to be a foregone conclusion. But the world is going to remember that when history called, Senator Burr called his broker, and it will take more than stock profits to ensure that his retirement is a comfortable one.

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