It's equally true in politics and firefighting: The smoke can kill you quicker than the flames.
Whether or not Sen. Richard Burr faces insider trading charges, and whether or not he's ultimately convicted, the scandal from his February stock dump is enough to effectively end his career on Capitol Hill.
Burr resigned his Senate Intelligence Committee chairmanship Thursday after the FBI seized his cellphone for a widening probe into his stock trades. The North Carolina Republican is suspected of having used privileged information to prevent steep losses as the coronavirus pandemic spread to the United States.
Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.7 million in stocks on Feb. 13, according to financial disclosures first reported by ProPublica. On the same day, brother-in-law Gerald Fauth unloaded stocks valued between $97,000 and $280,000.
A week later, the market tanked amid dire predictions that COVID-19 would derail America's high-octane economy. Burr's sale included holdings in two hotel chains whose share prices plunged as virus fears slowed travel and tourism spending.
As a powerful committee chair, Burr had access to classified information and received briefings on the coronavirus' likely economic impacts. He has denied wrongdoing and said he based his decisions on published news reports about the pandemic.
FBI agents are reportedly scouring Burr's phone for communication with his broker who executed the sell-offs in 33 separate transactions. A search warrant targeting a sitting U.S. senator is such a sensitive matter that top Department of Justice officials must have given the green light.
Burr has faced more scrutiny than three Senate colleagues — Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republicans Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and James Inhofe of Oklahoma — who also sold significant portions of their portfolios days before the market went belly up.
As if Burr had caught the virus himself, fellow Republicans are maintaining a strict social distance. Thom Tillis, North Carolina's junior senator, who's up for reelection this year, said last month that Burr "owes everybody in North Carolina and the United States an explanation."
President Donald Trump's supporters see Burr as disloyal for the flashes of independence he showed during the intelligence panel's probe of Russian election interference. Burr issued a subpoena compelling Donald Trump Jr. to testify before the committee, a move that likely angered the president.
If Justice Department officials find sufficient evidence to prosecute Burr, don't expect the White House to intervene. Making an example of him could quell fears that the agency has become nakedly partisan after it sought to dismiss federal charges against Michael Flynn, who served as Trump's first national security adviser.
Burr's home-state popularity is plummeting. In a March poll, 54% of North Carolina voters said they disapprove of his performance, and 50% agreed he should resign. Some analysts say Burr's scandal could even cost Tillis his seat, as Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham runs neck and neck with him.
Trump supporters and grassroots conservatives are leery of Burr, an establishment figure regarded as a mushy moderate. Republicans will throw him overboard if rising to his defense would hurt the party's prospects in this key battleground state.
Insider trading can be difficult to prove, but Burr has already lost in the court of public opinion. His well-timed trades smack of self-dealing. We're hard-wired to ostracize cheaters who game the system — studies show that our chimpanzee cousins have an innate sense of fairness and will balk when a chimp refuses to share resources equitably.
Dodging a criminal conviction isn't exoneration. Consider the case of Burr's predecessor, disgraced 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards. The prosecution of the former senator for campaign finance charges ended in a mistrial, but the widely publicized affair he carried out as his wife battled breast cancer made him a political pariah.
On the 2016 campaign trail, Burr said he planned to retire from the Senate after serving his third term and wouldn't seek reelection in 2022. He's a lame duck and a liability to his party.
The smoke billowing around Burr may not lead to a visible fire. Either way, he's toast. His best-case scenario is demotion from a rarefied ringmaster to a back-bencher who goes out with a whimper rather than a roar.
Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.