WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., on Thursday temporarily stepped aside as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee after the FBI seized his cellphone and questioned Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as part of a possible insider trading investigation.
Burr faced pressure to step aside as head of the powerful committee after the FBI seized his cellphone as part of a search warrant, senior law enforcement official confirmed to NBC News.
"The work the Intelligence Committee and its members do is too important to risk hindering in any way," the North Carolina Republican said in a statement. "I believe this step is necessary to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Burr would step aside effective at the end of the day on Friday until the investigation is complete.
Feinstein also answered questions from the FBI about stock trades that her husband made and she provided documents to the FBI, her spokesman said Thursday.
The Los Angeles Times first reported Wednesday night that federal agents had obtained Burr's phone, indicating a major escalation of the Justice Department investigation.
A senior Department of Justice official confirms that the search warrant for Burr's phone was actually served on his attorney. But the official says the phone itself needed to be picked up by FBI agents at Burr’s home but that there was not a “raid” on the senator’s residence. Agents took possession of the cell phone and then left Burr’s home.
That same official says the search warrant was approved at the highest levels of the Justice Department, meaning Attorney General William Barr signed off on executing the warrant.
A spokesman for Burr declined to comment Wednesday. A spokesperson for the Justice Department also declined to comment on The Times story.
Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, faced calls to resign in March after reports that he privately warned well-connected donors of the dire impact of the coronavirus pandemic in February while selling off up to $1.6 million of his own stocks.
Burr said in March that he relied on public news reports, not inside information from his role on the Senate committee.
He said he asked the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee "to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency."
"As the Senator has said, he has made the decision to step aside as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee until this investigation is resolved, and to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions," Burr's lawyer, Alice Fisher, said in a statement Thursday.
"When the issue arose, Senator Burr immediately asked the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct a complete review. He has also been actively cooperating with the government’s inquiry, as he said he would," the statement said. "From the outset, Senator Burr has been focused on an appropriate and thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate.”
Burr has previously announced he will not seek re-election. He was re-elected in 2016, and the next election for his seat is in 2022.
The furor began after ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, reported that Burr unloaded the stock around mid-February, about a week before the market started to plunge because of coronavirus concerns.
That included selling off up to $150,000 worth of shares in Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and $100,000 of shares in another hotel chain, Extended Stay America.
ProPublica discovered, and NBC News has confirmed, the stock sell-offs in Burr's publicly available financial disclosure reports. The exact figures are unclear because the reports offer ranges of transactions.
Disclosure records also show that three other senators sold major holdings around the same time: Feinstein, Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., according to The New York Times.
Loeffler has defended the sales, saying that "investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisers without my or my husband's knowledge or involvement." Her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.
A spokesperson for Loeffer declined to say whether she had also been contacted by the FBI. The spokesperson told NBC News on Thursday that, "no search warrant has been served on" the Georgia Republican.
Later on Thursday, a Loeffler spokeswoman said she "has forwarded documents and information to DOJ, the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), and the Senate Ethics Committee establishing that she and her husband acted entirely appropriately and observed both the letter and the spirit of the law.
"The documents and information demonstrated her and her husband’s lack of involvement in their managed accounts, as well the details of those accounts. Senator Loeffler has welcomed and responded to any questions from day one,” the spokeswoman said.
A Feinstein spokesman in March said that the senator did not sell any stock and that "the transactions you're referencing were made by her spouse."
The spokesman said all of Feinstein's assets are in a blind trust, and it's been that way since she came to the Senate in 1992.
Burr, 64, was elected to the House in 1994 and served five terms before being elected to the Senate in 2004.
Burr told reporters before being re-elected to his third term in 2016 that if he won, he would not run for a fourth term.
Burr, while a Republican, has occasionally taken actions that have angered some of the more fervent supporters of President Donald Trump.
A recently released bipartisan investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee validated a January 2017 U.S. intelligence assessment that described Russia interference in the 2016 presidential election, calling that assessment accurate, thorough and untainted by political bias.
"The committee found no reason to dispute the Intelligence Community's conclusions," Burr said in a statement at the time of the report's release in April. That report by the Republican-run committee examines how the assessment was put together.
On Wednesday night, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a vocal defender of Trump, tweeted about the investigation, using the term "stock selloff collusion."
Gaetz also retweeted a comment from the right-wing media figure Mike Cernovich who wrote that Burr "tormented prominent Trump supporters," including Trump's oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
Pete Williams reported from Washington, and Phil Helsel from Los Angeles.