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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Thursday that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is stepping down from his position as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee pending an investigation into possible insider trading.

Why it matters: The news comes one day after reports that the FBI seized Burr's phone as part of the investigation. Burr, who had access to classified briefings about the coronavirus, dumped between $582,029 and $1.56 million in March just prior to the market crash. He has denied wrongdoing.

What they're saying:

  • McConnell: “Senator Burr contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the pendency of the investigation. We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of the day tomorrow.”
  • Burr: "“This morning, I informed Majority Leader McConnell that I have made the decision to step aside as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee until this investigation is resolved. The work the Intelligence Committee and its members do is too important to risk hindering in any way. I believe this step is necessary to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions."

Background: Burr was hit with a federal lawsuit in late March after ProPublica revealed his stock trading activity. The Department of Justice began an inquiry into Burr's stock transactions in late March in coordination with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

  • His brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, dumped up to $280,000 in shares on the same day as the senator, according to more documents published by ProPublica.
  • Burr claims he sold his stocks because he "closely followed CNBC's daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time." He asked the Senate Ethics Committee in March to review his sell-off.

Flashback: Reuters reported on Feb. 27 that Burr had been receiving daily updates from the intelligence community about the outbreak in his role as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman.

  • NPR later reported that Burr told a private luncheon of constituents that same day that the coronavirus is "much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history."

The big picture: Stock trades around the same period by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) have also been scrutinized. All three have denied wrongdoing.

  • A spokesman for Feinstein told the New York Times that the FBI asked her in April about transactions made by her husband, and that the senator provided documents showing she had no involvement.
  • A spokeswoman for Loeffler denied that she has been contacted by federal authorities.

Go deeper

Hillary Clinton rips GOP senators: They seem like they've had a "lobotomy"

Hillary Clinton criticized her former Republican colleagues for their responses to the explosive findings in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on 2016 Russian interference, accusing them of giving up "their principles, their values, their backbone" to follow President Trump.

Why it matters: The fifth and final volume of the committee's report released this week went further than the Mueller report in showing the extent of Russia's connections to members of the Trump campaign. But the reactions to the findings were starkly divided along partisan lines, with Republicans claiming that the report puts an end to any claims of Trump campaign "collusion" with Russia in 2016.

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Data: Reporters Without Borders; Chart: Axios Visuals

Journalism is seriously restricted in 132 of 180 countries included in Reporters without Borders' annual Press Freedom Index — a particularly dangerous state of affairs during the pandemic.

Breaking it down: Nordic countries are ranked high on the list for having "good" press freedoms, while China, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea are at the bottom. The U.S. is ranked 44th.

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Photo: David Cliff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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Why it matters: The highly-complex structures of capitalism are built from the mostly base motivations of individuals chasing money. That's been condemned and celebrated in equal measure — but has also largely been accepted.