Trump Pick for Virus Fund Watchdog Faces Skeptical Democrats

Brian Miller, a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office, waits ahead of his Senate nomination hearing on Tuesday. Miller is President Donald Trump’s choice as special inspector general for the pandemic recovery. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via pool)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Senate Democrats on Tuesday questioned whether a White House lawyer will remain independent if he is confirmed to a position overseeing how the Treasury Department doles out $500 billion in bailouts to industries struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, President Donald Trump nominated Brian Miller, of the White House Counsel’s Office, to be the special inspector general for pandemic recovery. That office is tasked with supervising the $500 billion set aside for loans, loan guarantees and other relief for the Treasury Department to hand out to companies and state and local governments.

At his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Democrats on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee raised questions about whether Miller will remain independent and be willing to investigate the actions of his current boss.

“Mr. Miller, if you are confirmed, I expect you to follow the letter and spirit of the law and to serve the American people, not President Trump,” Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said as he dialed into the hearing over video. “As special inspector general you must be willing to stand up to the administration and any other bad actor and uphold the goals of the law. Anything less is totally unacceptable.”

Miller has lengthy experience in government and served as inspector general of the General Services Administration from 2005 until 2014.

During his time in that job, Miller’s team revealed multiple scandals at the agency, including top officials improperly intervening in contract negotiations and improper actions by former GSA Administrator Lurita Doan, who once compared his employees to “terrorists” and tried to cut his office’s budget. 

“Senator, again, I will be independent,” Miller told Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., at Tuesday’s hearing. “If the president removes me, he removes me. If I am unable to do my job, I will resign.”

Miller said he anticipates needing between 75 and 100 employees if confirmed to the positon, but acknowledged it will take time to staff up the office.

While Miller pointed to his work at the GSA as proof that he can stand up to the administration in which he serves, Democrats remained skeptical. Miller was hesitant to answer whether he would launch investigations in hypothetical scenarios crafted by Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Masachusetts Democrat.

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He was also evasive when Democrats asked him about work he had done while in the White House, including whether he worked on efforts to oust other inspectors general.

Democrats separately raised questions about a letter Miller wrote in December to the Government Accountability Office indicating the White House would not provide “factual information and legal views” the administration maintained related to the withheld military aid package at the center of Trump’s impeachment.

In the letter, Miller wrote the GAO had already received a letter from the Office of Management and Budget that answered the questions and that the White House did “not plan to respond separately to your letters.”

“That doesn’t signal the kind of independence — in fact, it suggests that you’ll be beholden to the White House, not critical of the White House,” Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said.

But Miller said senators were unfairly characterizing the letter, as he was simply responding to a request that had already been answered.

Miller could be confirmed without support from Democrats, given Republican control of the Senate.  

The hearing was among the first held since the Senate returned from a lengthy recess due to the coronavirus pandemic and showcased the ways in which the day-to-day life on Capitol Hill will change in response to the outbreak.

The hearing room was sparsely populated and members of the public were not allowed in with the Senate office buildings closed.

Committee Chair Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, wore a mask during the hearing, as did Miller and Dana Wade, a nominee to a position at the Department of Housing and Urban Development who also testified Tuesday.

Many senators called into the hearing over video rather than showing up in person. There were few technical mishaps during the two-hour event, though Crapo did have to briefly pass over Warren after she had trouble turning on her microphone when it came time for her to ask questions.  

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