(Bloomberg) — Senate Democrats challenged a vow of “fairness and impartiality” by Brian Miller, President Donald Trump’s nominee to oversee trillions of dollars being spent in the effort to rescue the economy from the coronavirus pandemic.
“President Trump has shown outright hostility to anyone who has tried to hold him accountable to the American people,” Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on Senate Banking Committee, said at Miller’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday. He said Miller needs to demonstrate he can take on the White House and “any other bad actor.”
Democrats have questioned Miller’s ability to serve as Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, or SIGPR, in light of his current post — as a White House lawyer who participated in Trump’s impeachment defense.
Miller said he’s shown his independence in his past career, including through aggressive investigations as inspector general at the General Services Administration during President George W. Bush’s administration that brought calls for his resignation.
“If the president removes me, he removes me,” Miller said of the new post. “If I am unable to do my job, I will resign.”
Discussing the pandemic funds, he said, “It’s vital that this money goes to the small businesses and hard-working Americans that need the money right now. We can’t afford to have it diverted to fraud, waste and abuse.”
Pressed by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Miller said he would investigate corporations that take bailout funds and then lay off workers and would “investigate all potential conflicts of interest” including lobbying of the White House and Congress.
Miller repeatedly cited “White House confidentiality” in declining to comment on moves such as Trump’s firing of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, who the president called “a disgrace.”
The hearing was held under new social distancing protocols, with Brown and most other senators asking their questions over video connections, while committee Chairman Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, and Miller spoke through face masks in an almost empty committee room.
Created by the $2.2 trillion Cares Act that Congress passed in March, the SIGPR’s purview will be key stimulus programs including $454 billion in backstops to lending programs through the U.S. Federal Reserve, as well as money for airlines and defense companies. The central bank is leveraging funds from the Treasury Department into trillions of dollars in liquidity for the economy.
Miller said he expects to start with a staff of 75 to 100 people, saying “it will be hard to staff up quickly.”
It’s unclear how deep Miller will be permitted to probe if, as expected, he wins confirmation in the Republican-led Senate. Trump already has sought to rein in the post Miller would fill by limited its communications with Congress.
The president also has moved in recent weeks to strip power from inspectors general he views as disloyal. He dismissed one watchdog, criticized another for spotlighting reports of equipment shortages at hospitals and shunted another from a post overseeing pandemic spending beyond the Treasury Department.
“We need a strong, tough IG,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech Tuesday. “Billions of dollars are being spent. We don’t want someone who has in his mind ‘I’ve got to please the president.'”
The SIGPR will operate inside of the Treasury to oversee Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s work, with an operating budget of about $25 million over five years, and is supposed to submit quarterly reports to Congress.
Miller said that the SIGPR office should oversee all crisis spending by Treasury and also by the Fede. Mnuchin has so far pledged about 40% of the $454 billion of funds Congress authorized to the Fed, through which the central bank can leverage more than $2 trillion in lending.
(Updates with further Miller comments starting in seventh paragraph)
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