Updated at 11:28 p.m. ET
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee warned a small group of well-connected constituents three weeks ago to prepare for dire economic and societal effects of the coronavirus, according to a secret recording obtained by NPR.
The remarks from U.S. Sen. Richard Burr were more stark than any he had delivered in more public forums.
On Feb. 27, when the United States had 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19, President Trump was tamping down fears and suggesting that the virus could be seasonal.
"It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle. It will disappear," the president said then, before adding, "it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We'll see what happens."
On that same day, Burr attended a luncheon held at a social club called the Capitol Hill Club. And he delivered a much more alarming message.
"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," he said, according to a secret recording of the remarks obtained by NPR. "It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic."
The luncheon had been organized by the Tar Heel Circle, a nonpartisan group whose membership consists of businesses and organizations in North Carolina, the state Burr represents. Membership to join the Tar Heel Circle costs between $500 and $10,000 and promises that members "enjoy interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration, and the private sector," according to the group's website.
In attendance, according to a copy of the RSVP list obtained by NPR, were dozens of invited guests representing companies and organizations from North Carolina. And according to federal records, those companies or their political committees donated more than $100,000 to Burr's election campaign in 2015 and 2016. (Burr announced previously he was not planning to run for reelection in 2022.)
The message Burr delivered to the group was dire.
Thirteen days before the State Department began to warn against travel to Europe, and 15 days before the Trump administration banned European travelers, Burr warned those in the room to reconsider.
"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. Why risk it?" Burr said.
Sixteen days before North Carolina closed its schools over the threat of the coronavirus, Burr warned it could happen.
"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.
And Burr invoked the possibility that the military might be mobilized to combat the coronavirus. Only now, three weeks later, is the public learning of that prospect.
"We're going to send a military hospital there; it's going to be in tents and going to be set up on the ground somewhere," Burr said at the luncheon. "It's going to be a decision the president and DOD make. And we're going to have medical professionals supplemented by local staff to treat the people that need treatment."
Burr has a unique perspective on the government's response to a pandemic, and not just because of his role as Intelligence Committee chairman. He helped to write the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), which forms the framework for the federal response.
But in his public comments about the threat of COVID-19, Burr never offered the kind of precise warning that he delivered to the small group of his constituents.
On Feb. 7, Burr co-authored an op-ed that laid out the tools that the U.S. government had at its disposal to fight the coronavirus.
"Luckily, we have a framework in place that has put us in a better position than any other country to respond to a public health threat, like the coronavirus," Burr said in a statement on March 5.
He pressed a CDC official in early March as to why the nation's pandemic surveillance capabilities had fallen short despite the millions in funding he had helped secure for that purpose through PAHPA.
But despite his longtime interest in biohazard threats, his expertise on the subject, and his role as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr did not warn the public of the government actions he thought might become necessary, as he did at the luncheon on Feb. 27.
Burr's office did not directly respond to a list of questions sent by NPR.
His spokesperson Caitlin Carroll provided a statement that stressed Burr's decades-long interest in public health preparedness.
"Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus," Carroll wrote. "At the same time, he has urged public officials to fully utilize every tool at their disposal in this effort. Every American should take this threat seriously and should follow the latest guidelines from the CDC and state officials."
One public health expert told NPR that early warnings about a coming health crisis and its effects could have made a difference just a few weeks ago.
"In the interest of public health, we actually need to involve the public. It's right there in the name. And being transparent, being as clear as possible is very important," said Jason Silverstein, who lectures at the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
On Thurday, Sen. Burr took to Twitter and called NPR's reporting on the matter a "tabloid-style hit piece." He also raises cases in which other individuals — not him — warned the public about a possible coming Coronavirus health crisis.
In a tabloid-style hit piece today, NPR knowingly and irresponsibly misrepresented a speech I gave last month about the coronavirus threat.— Richard Burr (@SenatorBurr) March 19, 2020
Let me set the record straight. 1/
Meanwhile, ProPublica released a report Thursday evening showing that Burr had unloaded a substantial amount of stocks in mid-February, before the recent market volatility.
Burr sold personal stocks worth between $628,000 and $1.72 million in 33 separate transactions on a single day, February 13th, according to public disclosures.
It was, according to ProPublica, the most stock he's sold in a single day in 14 months.
Asked by NPR for a comment on the senator's stock sales, Burr spokesperson Carroll replied, "lol."
Carroll later reached out to say that the 'lol' remark was meant to express displeasure with NPR's earlier characterizations and not intended as an on-the-record response.
She also provided a formal statement.
"Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak," Carroll said.
"As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy."
NPR's Huo Jingnan, Barbara Van Woerkom and Meg Anderson contributed to this story.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
NPR has obtained a secret recording taken three weeks ago. You're going to hear the voice of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, Republican in the Senate. You're going to hear him warning a private audience about how the coronavirus would impact the United States.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICHARD BURR: There is one thing that I can tell you about this. It is much more aggressive in its transition than anything we have seen in recent history. It's probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.
GREENE: More akin to the 1918 pandemic is what you heard him say there. This was a stronger message than most Americans were hearing at that time. And Burr's comments raise questions about why an audience at a lunch on Capitol Hill would get what seemed to be a more frank assessment than the general public. NPR's Tim Mak is the one who got his hands on this recording and is with us this morning. Hi, Tim.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.
GREENE: OK, so who was the senator speaking to in this clip, and where'd the tape come from?
BURR: Well, the luncheon was organized by the Tar Heel Circle, which consists of businesses and organizations from North Carolina, the state that Senator Burr represents. Membership in the Tar Heel Circle costs between $500 and $10,000. Burr was talking candidly about his assessment of how - about how bad the coronavirus might become in the U.S., and the tape comes from an attendee who became alarmed about Burr's dire warnings, so began to record.
GREENE: Oh, so worried and saying, this sounds like very serious stuff. I better start recording this. What else did the senator say in this meeting?
MAK: Well, Senator Burr warned well in advance that the coronavirus could be very disruptive. A lot of the things he warned about have actually come to pass. You know, 13 days before the State Department began to warn against travel to Europe and 15 days before the Trump administration banned European travelers from the U.S., Burr warned those in that room to reconsider.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BURR: 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. Why risk it?
MAK: Sixteen days before North Carolina closed its schools due to the threat of coronavirus, Burr warned it could happen. It is only now, three weeks later, that the public is learning in earnest about how the military may be mobilized to combat the coronavirus. But Burr invoked the prospect when talking about how the country might have to surge its medical capacity.
GREENE: Well, Tim, I want to be really careful about the timing here. So all of those warnings were Burr's message behind closed doors. What was he saying publicly at that same time?
MAK: Nowhere in press statements or other remarks did Senator Burr provide warnings about how bad he worried the coronavirus crisis would become. I think what's interesting about this story is that Burr was providing a stark assessment about coronavirus to a small audience of constituents, which, as an elected official, he never told the general public about.
This story raises questions about whether Burr was truly frank with the public about how bad the coming might - the coming weeks might be, in his opinion. Remember, his comments at the luncheon contradicted the president's then-rosy outlooks. That same day, here's what the president said about the coronavirus.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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. Could maybe go away. We'll see what happens.
GREENE: Well, I mean, we've certainly seen President Trump's level of concern change dramatically in the last couple of weeks since then. In terms of Senator Burr, like, what is his history working on, you know, health issues like this?
MAK: Well, he has a long history. In fact, he's a major author of the legislative framework for how the United States deals with pandemics. But despite his work, his decades of work on biohazards and his position as a lawmaker and chairman on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he didn't speak out about his assessment. It's hard to know whether, had he done so, anything would have been different. But according to a public health expert I spoke to, warning the public about the extreme measures that may have been coming down the line could have allowed people more time to prepare.
GREENE: And you reached out to Senator Burr's office for comment on all this. What are they saying?
MAK: Well, Senator Burr's spokesperson stressed that the senator has had a longtime advocacy of public health preparedness and that he has, quote, "worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus." Burr's spokesperson also said that every American should take the coronavirus threat seriously.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Tim Mak, thanks so much for your reporting on this, Tim.
MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.