On Feb. 27, the United States had just 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Donald Trump was telling Americans the coronavirus was “going to disappear” one day, “like a miracle.” But Republican Sen. Richard Burr, in a private meeting with members of an exclusive group, was issuing dire warnings about the emerging pandemic.
“There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told members of Tar Heel Circle in a secret recording obtained by NPR reporter Tim Mak. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic,” Burr added.
The luncheon, held at the Capitol Hill Club, included a nonpartisan group of dozens of Burr’s constituents who pay between $500 and $10,000 to be part of the elite Tar Heel group, which promises them access to powerful leaders in Congress, the executive branch, and the private sector. NPR reports that the companies represented at the luncheon and their political committees “donated more than $100,000 to Burr’s election campaign in 2015 and 2016.”
At the time, Burr warned the group about sending employees to Europe for business trips that could otherwise be handled remotely. “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. Why risk it?” Burr said, fully 15 days before the Trump administration issued a travel ban for Europeans and 13 days before the State Department began to issue similar travel guidance.
Burr’s stark assessment of major disruptions also predated school closures in his state by 16 days. “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,” he said. Burr also mentioned the potential need to mobilize the U.S. military in order to resource the effort to battle the coronavirus.
Yet Burr, who also authored the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, never sounded the alarm bells so loudly in public as he did in that private meeting. In early February, he did co-author an op-ed for Fox News about the federal government’s supposed prevention efforts. In early March, he grilled a Centers for Disease Control official on the federal government’s dismal efforts to monitor the virus, despite the millions of dollars available through the pandemic preparedness law he authored.
But Burr didn’t issue any public warnings that were as direct and ominous as the one he delivered to the select group of wealthy constituents on Feb. 27.
To be clear, people with money—donors to his campaign—got an urgent warning about what was on the horizon while all of Burr’s other constituents were basically left in the dark.
How many lives could have been saved if Burr had been more public and forceful about his knowledge? How many other GOP lawmakers also issued private warnings to the wealthy and well-connected while being too fearful of Trump to contradict him publicly?
And how do these Republican lawmakers sleep at night knowing the catastrophic harms they have allowed to unfold before their eyes, under the leadership of a president they explicitly voted to keep in office?