Trump's pick for coronavirus inspector general faces questions about independence

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s nominee for inspector general overseeing billions in Treasury Department coronavirus relief funds is facing skepticism from Democrats who fear that he will not show sufficient independence.

Even so, that nominee, Brian D. Miller, stands to be confirmed as the special inspector general for pandemic recovery by a Republican-controlled Senate. In that position, he would monitor the disbursement of $500 billion in loans to businesses and corporations. Those funds were appropriated in last month’s CARES Act, a $2 trillion package meant to stimulate an economy paralyzed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Democratic skepticism during the hearing of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, came in part because Miller currently serves as a White House attorney. Miller fought back by citing his legal mandate to investigate fraud and abuse related to coronavirus spending.

“If I am unable to do my job, I will resign,” he vowed.

White House lawyer Brian D. Miller. (Salwan Georges/Pool via Reuters)

Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., asked if he would look to “gain presidential approval before investigating contacts, issuing reports or communicating with Congress.”

Miller promised that he would not.

His supporters on the Republican side pointed to an investigation Miller did as an inspector general in the George W. Bush administration, when he faulted top federal administrator Lurita Doan for abusing her position. Doan, who had been a military contractor before joining the Republican administration, was forced to resign.

Most recently, his job was to defend Trump on charges related to abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. During the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine, Miller rebuffed a request from the Government Accountability Office.

“The White House does not plan to respond separately to your letters,” Miller wrote on Dec. 20 of last year.

The impeachment has receded in the national imagination, overtaken by a pathogen that has killed some 70,000 Americans. Still, Miller’s rejection of the information request returned as a point of contention on Tuesday, as Democrats wondered if he could ever assert independence from a president he has been representing. 

“I was just answering the mail,” Miller explained of that exchange. Democrats were not satisfied with that answer, with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wondering if Miller would find such “stonewalling,” as he called it, “acceptable” in response to a coronavirus-related inquiry.

“I’m not really sure what your question is getting at,” Miller replied. 

A former attorney in the George W. Bush administration who later served as inspector general for the General Services Administration — the position in which he wrote the report critical of Bush appointee Doan — Miller gave careful, legalistic answers, vowing to assert his own independence but avoiding any overt criticism of the Trump administration. 

Alex Wong/Pool via Reuters

“I will conduct every audit and investigation with fairness and impartiality,” he said in his opening statement, pledging to “seek the truth in all matters that come before me.” Those matters are likely to involve questions about why large, well-funded corporations are asking for small-business loans

And there have been reports of people connected to the White House seeking such loans. Given the president’s business ties, Democrats worry about the proliferation of such arrangements.

The hearing took place under remarkable circumstances, two days into the Senate’s return to a capital that remains under lockdown. The upper chamber was hastened into reconvening by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., despite objections from some legislators that it was not safe to do so. 

His counterpart in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has not yet moved to reopen her chamber, though she may do so as early as next week

The familiar scene of a hearing room packed with legislative aides and members of the public was nowhere in evidence. Instead, large bottles of hand sanitizer and cylindrical containers of sanitizing wipes marked a new congressional normal. So did a briefing room largely absent of legislators themselves. 

Many attended the hearing via video. Those who attended in person wore face masks, as did the nominees themselves (along with Miller, the committee considered the nomination of Dana T. Wade to become the chairperson of the Federal Housing Administration).

Miller with Dana T. Wade, Trump's nominee for federal housing commissioner. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Miller’s nomination has been especially fraught because Trump has shown unrelenting suspicion of inspectors general, who are supposed to act as independent watchdogs within their agencies. Trump has routinely challenged that independence. 

Only last Friday, he removed Christi Grimm, inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, for a report that highlighted “severe shortages of testing supplies” in hospitals. Before that, he fired Glenn Fine, who had been overseeing all coronavirus spending. And right before that, he fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general, whose certification of a whistleblower complaint initiated the very impeachment investigation that Miller and other White House attorneys would be responding to months later.

Democrats wondered if Miller had anything to do with the removal of Fine or Atkinson, but Miller said his “ethical obligations” prevented him from saying anything about his White House work. Early in the hearing, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, asked Miller if he would show support for Grimm, who had lost her job for writing the very kind of report Miller will be expected to conduct.

“I am not here to assess those sort of actions,” Miller answered. 

Michael Atkinson, former inspector general of the intelligence community. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

He also survived an exchange with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who had previously indicated her unease with the Miller nomination. Under intense questioning from the progressive former presidential candidate — and potential vice presidential pick for Democratic nominee Joe Biden — Miller made concessions, somewhat uneasily, to her consumer watchdog side, asserting that companies that took loans but then still laid off or furloughed workers could earn unwelcome attention from him.

“I’m not comfortable answering hypotheticals,” Miller said, right before agreeing that the first of the hypotheticals she presented would merit scrutiny from his office. 

“Good, good,” Warren said. 

She also asked him if a company that lobbied the White House and Congress receiving a bailout was a “potential circumstance” he would want to investigate.

As the nominee hesitated, Warren reminded him that they had spoken privately the day before, and that he had then agreed that such a scenario was worthy of investigation. That left Miller with little option but to agree.

The Republicans have a narrow majority in the Senate. It’s not clear that Democrats were willing to put much energy into the fight against the Miller nomination, in seeming awareness of the coronavirus-related battles all but certain to come.

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