Democrats doubt Trump attorney can give independent oversight

Miller vowed to be objective in spending review

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Miller's work as Trump's attorney should have disqualified him for the inspector general nomination.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Miller's work as Trump's attorney should have disqualified him for the inspector general nomination. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 5, 2020 at 5:29pm

Senate Democrats doubt that one of President Donald Trump’s impeachment attorneys will hold the administration accountable as special inspector general for pandemic recovery, but they asked Brian Miller to prove them wrong at his confirmation hearing Tuesday.

Shortly after the president signed the roughly $2.0 trillion economic rescue package into law in March with a statement saying he would not comply with the statute’s congressional reporting requirements, he nominated Miller, the associate White House counsel and special assistant to the president who sought to block congressional efforts to investigate Trump.

Miller would oversee the federal bailouts to the airline industry and the Treasury Department's and Federal Reserve's use of  $454 billion to backstop as much as $4 trillion in emergency lending facilities. So far, the Fed has established nine liquidity programs to support financial markets, larger businesses, and state and local municipalities while COVID-19 ravages the economy.

Miller promised to monitor the Treasury Department’s spending objectively.

“If confirmed, I will conduct every audit and investigation with fairness and impartiality,” he said behind a powder blue cloth face mask. “I will be vigilant to protect the integrity and independence of the Office of Special Inspector General. I pledge to seek the truth in all matters that come before me, and use is my authority and resources to uncover fraud, waste, and abuse.”

Democrats were skeptical.

“Mr. Miller, your time working as one of the president’s defense attorneys should have disqualified you from being nominated to oversee the president’s management of one of the largest corporate bailouts in American history,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “He has already said he will muzzle you. You will, however, have the chance to defend your independence and your integrity by your actions.”

Miller rebuffed his Democratic doubters by pointing to his nearly decade-long tenure as the General Services Administration’s inspector general under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

“At every point I had to fight for independence to perform audits and investigations — objectively, fairly, independently — and I met with resistance,” he said. “Throughout my tenure as inspector general, I conducted investigations of major contractors much to the chagrin of people in leadership positions at the GSA and I dare say in Congress, and I received criticism for that.”

[COVID-19 loan IG nominee faces Senate panel as Trump stills watchdogs]

In response to supportive questions from Republicans, Miller said that at the GSA he withstood pressure from Republican lawmakers and officials to squash investigations unfavorable to GOP appointees. Miller also uncovered an extravagant GSA conference in Las Vegas in 2010 that led to the organizer’s criminal conviction.

In recent weeks, Trump has fired the acting inspectors general at the Defense and Health and Human Services departments and the intelligence community inspector general, admitting that at least some of the moves were retaliatory in nature. Democrats and accountability groups say they worry other IGs will avoid embarrassing the administration.

“I think all of them have to feel hesitant at the least to uncover anything that might anger the president,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Program on Government Oversight. “And that’s their job. So, he’s really got a lot of hurdles ahead of him to be able to do this job well.”

Senate Banking ranking member Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, invited Miller to criticize Trump’s retaliation against acting HHS IG Christi Grimm, but he demurred, to the ranking member’s disappointment. “You have a bar you need to get over to demonstrate your independence, and I was hoping this would be a way of doing it,” Brown said.

Government watchdogs also questioned whether any former White House staffer, especially one who worked to block congressional investigations into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, could remain independent.

"Can a Trump loyalist who was Corporate America’s go-to guy for throwing government inspectors off their trail truly be an independent steward of taxpayer money in the corporate bailout process?” said Accountable.US President Kyle Herrig in a press release, referring to Miller's time as a private attorney. “All signs point to 'no' as Mr. Miller served on the President’s legal team when Trump signed an executive decree to disregard the fund’s transparency requirements.”

Michael Bromwich, an inspector general at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, said Miller could be qualified and capable of holding the White House accountable, “but that’s not really the point.”

“Not only does an IG have to be independent, he has to have the appearance of independence,” Bromwich said. “And someone coming out of the White House doesn’t have those credentials — particularly with the oversight here, where the first few months or half year what the IG does may directly affect the president’s ability to get elected.”

Miller pledged to use all the tools available to him to root out corruption.

“If someone is gaming the system, taking advantage of the system, or even self-dealing, I would like to know that and report on that,” he said. “So, I will analyze those transactions very carefully … and, if necessary, subpoena the information if I can't get it otherwise.”

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., who was appointed to the five-member congressional oversight panel for the pandemic spending, asked Miller how the IG could work with the committee.

“I think delineating the responsibilities so there is no overlap would be important,” Miller responded.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked Miller whether he would tell Congress if the president tried to stop him from reporting his findings.

“I will report any undue influence on me from whatever source,” Miller said.

Miller also said he expects to hire between 75 and 100 staffers for his office, which has a $25 million budget. He warned that it may take time to staff up, though, given that the pandemic was slowing an already slugging government hiring process. 

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