WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s choice to oversee a significant chunk of the $2 trillion economic rescue law pledged Tuesday to conduct audits and investigations "with fairness and impartiality.''
Brian Miller, a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, told the Senate Banking Committee during his confirmation hearing that “independence is vital" for the special inspector general for pandemic recovery. The post would place him in charge of overseeing a roughly $500 billion Treasury fund for industry created as part of the economic rescue law approved in late March.
In written testimony, Miller pledged to be vigilant in protecting the integrity and independence of his office and vowed "to seek the truth in all matters that come before me and to use my authority and resources to uncover fraud, waste and abuse.''
In a testy exchange with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Miller said his goal is to make all information about the $500 billion fund public. Warren, who helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the 2008 recession, was unimpressed, saying Miller's time in the White House counsel's office should have disqualified him from the inspector general's role.
Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his contempt for oversight and will be a formidable obstacle for Miller or any other watchdog, Warren said. "He has already said he will muzzle you,'' she told Miller. ”You will, however, have the chance to defend your independence and your integrity by your actions.”
Miller replied that it is "fundamental for an inspector general to be independent.'' He pledged to work with Warren and other Democrats, even if she doesn’t vote for him “as you indicated yesterday” during a private meeting.
Warren and other senators from both parties appeared at Tuesday's hearing through a video link, choosing to stay away from the hearing room because of concerns about the coronavirus. At one point, a dog could be heard barking while Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown spoke from his Ohio home.
Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, the panel’s Republican chairman, wore a mask as he led the session, the Senate's first “virtual” hearing since the coronavirus crisis largely shut down the country in March. At least five GOP senators attended the hearing, including several who did not wear masks while questioning Miller and another nominee. Miller and Dana Wade, nominated as assistant secretary of housing and urban development, both testified with their masks on.
Crapo called the hearing “a success” in terms of technology, thanks to a bevy of Senate staffers and others who scrambled to put the meeting together. Miller and Wade "both acquitted themselves well,'' Crapo said, and Miller answered a slew of questions about his independence.
“I think (Miller) was very capable in his responses by showing that he’s got an entire career of being an effective and independent IG,” Crapo said. "I think he did very well. And I expect he will be supported well on the (Senate) floor.”
Miller has worked at the Justice Department and was inspector general for nearly a decade at the General Services Administration, which oversees thousands of federal contracts. Miller helped force out the GSA's director during the George W. Bush administration, drawing criticism from the White House and Republican lawmakers.
The former administrator, Lurita Doan, called Miller a bureaucratic “terrorist’’ and tried to cut his funding, a fact GOP senators repeatedly cited at Tuesday's hearing.
"It's a pretty good case history on independence,'' said Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
While he is respected in the oversight community, Miller’s role in the White House counsel’s office — which led Trump’s defense during impeachment — is troubling, Democrats and watchdog groups said.
Brown, top Democrat on the banking panel, questioned whether Miller will be able to hold the Trump administration accountable for how it administers the business program and "guarantee that corporations getting taxpayer money put their workers first.″
In the last 20 years, Brown said his staff found only one inspector general candidate who was nominated while serving in the White House counsel’s office and another who served in the legal office of an earlier administration. Both nominees resigned, “one for politicizing the office and the other for a lack of independence,'' Brown said. ”Not a great track record."
Still, Brown appeared to concede Miller's likely confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate. If he is confirmed, Brown added, “I expect you to follow the letter and spirit of the law, and serve the American people – not President Trump. ... You must be willing to stand up to the administration and any other bad actor and to uphold the goals of the law. Anything less is unacceptable.”
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Miller's nomination is part of a pattern of “roadblocks thrown up” by Trump to block oversight of his administration.
In recent weeks, Trump has fired an inspector general tied to his impeachment and sidelined another who was set to lead a group of inspectors general overseeing the rescue package. On Friday night, Trump moved to replace yet another inspector general, an acting official who criticized the coronavirus response by federal health officials.
Trump also said in signing the rescue law that he will resist oversight provisions. “All of this taken together means real oversight will be met with retribution, which makes it all the more important,’’ Bookbinder said.