Mar 19, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Richard Burr told constituents in February coronavirus was "akin to the 1918 pandemic"

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told a small, private group of constituents on Feb. 27 that the coronavirus outbreak was "akin to the 1918 pandemic," audio obtained by NPR shows.

Why it matters: "The 1918 pandemic," or the Spanish flu, killed millions worldwide — and Burr's comments directly contradicted those from President Trump on that same day, when the U.S. had 15 confirmed coronavirus cases.

What Burr said: "There's one thing that I can tell you about this — it is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history. It's probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic."

  • "Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they're making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference."
  • "There will be, I'm sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, let's close schools for two weeks, everybody stay home."

What Trump said that same day at a White House meeting: "It's going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better."

  • "It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows."

The big picture: Burr did not sound a similarly strong alarm to a wider, more public audience.

  • The gathering was organized by Tar Heel Circle, a business-oriented North Carolina group with a membership fee between $500 and $10,000.
  • NPR found that the businesses and organizations present at the meeting had donated more than $100,000 to Burr's 2016 campaign. He has said he does not plan to run for re-election in 2022.

A spokesperson for Burr told NPR that Burr has "worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of the coronavirus."

Go deeper

Lawsuit alleges securities fraud in Sen. Richard Burr's stocks sell-off

Sen. Richard Burr at the Senate floor in February. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) was hit with a federal lawsuit Monday over his sell-off of shares before the market crashed over concerns about the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Details: Wyndham Hotels and Resorts shareholder Alan Jacobson alleges "acts of securities fraud committed by [Burr]" and "abuse of his powers as a U.S. Senator" when he sold his $150,000 stake in the business. Burr strongly denies any wrongdoing and asked the Senate Ethics Committee Friday to review the sell-offs.

Lawmakers come under scrutiny for stock sales

Sens. Diane Feinstein, Ron Johnson and Kelly Loeffler. Photos: Getty Images

Several U.S. senators have come under fire for making large stock trades while President Trump and other federal officials publicly downplayed the novel coronavirus threat, but after the lawmakers received a private briefing on the potential seriousness of COVID-19.

The state of play: The trades have sparked insider trading accusations, but it's impossible to know for sure without an investigation by the Justice Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Joe Biden projected to win North Carolina Democratic primary

Photo: Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden has won the North Carolina Democratic primary, where 110 delegates are up for grabs, according to multiple media projections.

Why it matters: North Carolina is the most delegate-rich primary of any state that has voted thus far. It's also a state where billionaire Michael Bloomberg had poured more than $15 million into campaign advertising.