Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., stepped aside as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee after FBI agents reportedly seized his phone as part of an investigation into potential insider trading, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced Thursday.
"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," McConnell said in a statement. "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."
McConnell's statement came hours after multiple news outlets reported that Burr's cellphone was seized by FBI agents in a marked escalation of a Department of Justice probe into possible insider trading.
Burr turned his phone over to agents when they served him a search warrant at his Washington area home, a law enforcement official told The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. NBC News separately confirmed the report.
Agents had to convince a judge that they have "probable cause to believe a crime has been committed" in order to obtain the search warrant, and a warrant pertaining to a sitting U.S. senator would require "approval from the highest ranks" of the department, The Times reported.
Burr's communications with his broker are being probed by the Justice Department, the same official told the newspaper. A second law enforcement official told the outlet that the FBI also served a warrant to Apple to obtain data from the senator's iCloud account; agents used the information obtained from the warrant to get the warrant for Burr's phone.
The investigation was launched after ProPublica first reported that Burr sold a large portion of his stock portfolio in 33 separate transactions on Feb. 13, the same day that his committee received a non-public coronavirus briefing and one week before the stock market plunged. The stocks were worth between $628,000 and $1.72 million. Many of the stocks sold saw their value plummet in subsequent weeks.
The same day that Burr sold stocks, his brother-in-law Gerald Fauth also sold between $97,000 and $280,000 worth of stock, the outlet reported. Burr denied any wrongdoing after the report was published and called for the Senate Ethics Committee to review the transactions.
"I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on Feb. 13," he said in a statement in March. "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."
The senator subsequently denied that he had coordinated the sale with his brother-in-law.
Burr was one of just three senators to vote against the 2012 STOCK Act, which banned lawmakers from making stock transactions based on privileged information. He argued after the vote that that the stock transactions in the bill were already barred by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Asked what he believed should happen to senators accused of insider trading, Burr responded: "They should be prosecuted."
The investigation has intensified as recent moves by Attorney General William Barr drew accusations of politicizing the department for the benefit of the president. Burr, as the head of the intelligence panel, recently issued a bipartisan report confirming that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump. The committee previously subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. last year to answer questions about Trump's plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a staunch Trump ally, shared a tweet alleging that Burr "tormented prominent Trump supporters," including his son. He suggested Wednesday that Burr ws now "probably more worried about brother-in-law stock selloff collusion."
Other senators also sold off stocks around the same time as Burr, including Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., The New York Times reported.
Loeffler, whose husband is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, said that "investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisers without my or my husband's knowledge or involvement."
A spokesman for Feinstein said in March that the transactions "were made by her spouse." Inhofe said that he did not attend the briefing, and the transactions were made by a broker.
All three senators have said that they have not been contacted by the FBI.
John Dean, the former White House counsel who testified against President Richard Nixon during the Watergate hearings, questioned why Burr was the only senator targeted by the Justice Department.
"You can be sure this was cleared by the White House counsel if not Trump himself," he tweeted. "Also AG Bill Barr. But why not Senator Kelly Loeffler, who also sold stocks? Because Burr is not a Trump toady, this looks like a vendetta!"
Susan Hennessey, a former attorney at the National Security Agency who now serves as a CNN legal analyst, also raised suspicions about the department's move.
"This is a moment to be seriously on guard for DOJ being used to carry out political retribution," she wrote. "Serving a warrant on a senator is a very significant and rapid escalation and Trump has long had an axe to grind with Burr."