WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s pick to be the coronavirus inspector general won praise Saturday from some oversight experts, but Democrats slammed the president’s decision to elevate a member of his own staff to the key new role.
Brian Miller, who is currently senior associate counsel in the White House Counsel’s Office, would oversee a $500 billion bailout fund for industry if confirmed by the Senate as the new special inspector general for pandemic recovery. Trump announced late Friday his intent to nominate Miller for the job.
In the White House Counsel’s Office Miller was involved in defending the president during the impeachment proceedings, and Democrats said his current role raised questions about his independence.
“This oversight position, which will be responsible for overseeing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, requires complete independence from the president and any other interested party to assure the American people that all decisions are made without fear or favor,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Saturday. “To nominate a member of the president’s own staff is exactly the wrong type of person to choose for this position.”
But before working for the White House, Miller served for nine years as inspector general for the General Services Administration, an agency with a budget of more than $20 billion that oversees thousands of federal properties. While in that role, he investigated a scandal over a 2010 GSA conference in Las Vegas where agency officials partied in a hot tub and spent thousands on sushi and a mind reader. He was also instrumental in the 2008 resignation of GSA Administrator Lurita Doan, who had been accused by Democrats of using the GSA to help Republicans politically during the George W. Bush administration.
“He was a very serious IG at GSA,” said Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight, an expert on inspectors general. “The best specific example is he went toe to toe with the GSA administrator and was largely responsible for Bush firing GSA administrator Lurita Doan. He wasn’t afraid of taking direct action.”
Keith Ashdown, former staff director for the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which has oversight over inspectors general, offered similar praise.
“He is a quality pick. You couldn’t do better. He combines loyalty to the administration with the independence you need in an IG,” said Ashdown, who served as staff director under Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the current committee chairman.
After leaving the inspector general job at GSA in 2014, Miller spent several years in the private sector before joining the Trump White House Counsel’s Office in December 2018. He was involved in the recent impeachment proceedings, which ended in February with Trump’s acquittal by the Senate.
Two people familiar with Miller’s work in the White House Counsel’s Office said he was a midlevel member of the office’s larger effort to rebut unflattering claims from impeachment witnesses and raise doubts about allegations that White House officials were concerned about Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president. Miller, the people said, encouraged White House allies to spread the word, without clear evidence, that changes to a word-for-word transcription to create a memorandum of the Trump-Zelensky call were factually insignificant. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
“I think this is a political reward for his service during impeachment,” said one person familiar with Miller’s work during the impeachment inquiry. “The trashing of legitimate whistleblowers. The cover-up of the full story of what happened.”
Miller’s nomination must be approved by the Senate, where he is likely to receive a friendly reception from Republicans who control the Chamber. A simple majority vote will ensure his confirmation, meaning Democratic objections will be unable to block his confirmation.
However, he is certain to face tough questions in confirmation hearings. The timeline for those hearings and a Senate vote is uncertain. The Senate is out of session until at least late April because of health concerns around the novel coronavirus.
Shortly after Trump announced his plans to nominate Miller late Friday night, he fired the inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who’d raised questions about Trump’s actions that were at the center of the impeachment inquiry. That move enraged Democrats, and led some key Republicans to speak out Saturday about the importance of independence on the part of inspectors general.
“Inspectors general play a critical role in protecting against fraud, waste, abuse and misconduct, and their work helps ensure the government efficiently serves the people,” Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement Saturday. He added the administration needs to provide more details about Atkinson’s dismissal.
The job Miller is being nominated to is a critical piece of the oversight mechanisms included in the newly enacted $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package. Miller would be responsible for overseeing a $500 billion pot of money that the treasury secretary will use to issue loans to industries. With an initial budget of $25 million, he will be responsible for auditing the loans and issuing quarterly reports.
However, Trump has already indicated skepticism about the scope of the new inspector general’s role, specifically provisions in the legislation that allow the inspector general to alert Congress if he is not getting the information he wants from the executive branch. In a signing statement accompanying enactment of the new law, Trump suggested he might not allow such notifications to occur.
That raised alarms for experts including Neil Barofsky, who was inspector general for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program passed at the height of the financial crisis in 2008. In an earlier interview with The Washington Post, Barofsky said that the ability to notify Congress — or threaten to do so — was an important tool he used to wrest information from the executive branch. The new coronavirus inspector general is modeled on the one used for TARP.
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The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.