Senate Democrats object to Trump's stimulus coordinator

Leigh Ann Caldwell and Julie Tsirkin

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are charging President Donald Trump with trying to circumvent oversight of the allocation of nearly $500 million in loans and grants to big businesses in the coronavirus relief package after Trump appointed a White House aide to watch over the process.

The president on Monday nominated the aide, Brian Miller, to serve as the special inspector general, a new oversight entity created by Congress in the $2 trillion CARES Act. The nomination raised alarm bells among Democrats because Miller works in the White House legal office and played a role in defending Trump during his impeachment proceedings.

The position is specifically tasked with overseeing Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's disbursement of hundreds of millions of federal dollars to big businesses and corporations, which some skeptics are concerned will become a "slush fund" for friends and allies of Mnuchin and the president.

Democrats maintain that whoever takes the position must maintain independence from the president, especially after he issued a statement when he signed the CARES Act into law sidestepping a provision that the special inspector general must notify Congress of information found in any investigation "without delay." The president's addendum to the law says such information must first be seen by the president.

"One of the reasons the inspector general's office was set up was for its independence. And so I think somebody who comes from the president's counsel's office doesn't seem to meet that bill," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday in a news teleconference.

Republicans, who supported adding oversight provisions to the relief bill, have said little about Miller's nomination. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia sidestepped the question Monday, saying, "I don't know him specifically, so I can't speak to that."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, isn't commenting until he fully evaluates Miller, his spokesman said, but he has said strong independent oversight is a necessity.

"Now, more than ever, it's critical that we ensure that this money is used as intended. The administration, the special inspector general for pandemic relief, the Pandemic Relief Accountability Committee and all of us in Congress must keep a watchful eye on these programs to guard against fraud, waste and mismanagement," Grassley said last month with the passage of the CARES Act.

The president announced his intention to nominate Miller on Friday, the same night he fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, who turned over the whistleblower complaint to Congress that led to the president's impeachment.

Before going to work at the White House, Miller was the inspector general at the Government Services Administration for 10 years.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the good governance group Project on Government Oversight, said Miller was an effective inspector general at GSA whose investigation in 2008 led to the removal of the agency's head, Lurita Doan, for having given a contract to a friend. But Brian said Trump's firing of Atkinson puts his independence — and that of all inspectors general — in jeopardy.

"How can we expect someone to be seriously aggressive in their job if the president can fire them when they do something he doesn't like?" Brian said.

Congress built layers of oversight into the pandemic relief legislation, creating a coalition of inspectors general from nine federal agencies to oversee the government's response, as well as a Congressional Oversight Commission to investigate carrying out the CARES Act.

Schumer announced Monday that Bharat Ramamurti is his choice to serve on the oversight commission. Ramamurti was a top consumer and economics adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in her Senate office and on her presidential campaign. Warren was instrumental in Congress' inclusion of the commission in the CARES Act.

While Warren said she was glad that Ramamurti was nominated, she is pushing for the board, which doesn't have subpoena power, to have even more authority in the next phase of the stimulus.

"Now Congress needs to strengthen that panel — and enact stronger rules in the next coronavirus package so those overseeing this response have more tools to protect U.S. taxpayers," Warren said.

The Congressional Oversight Commission will have five members. Schumer; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., each pick one member, and Pelosi and McConnell will jointly name the fifth, who will chair the committee.

Adding even more oversight, Pelosi has also said that she is creating an oversight panel consisting solely of House members and appointed Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., as chairman.