Trump’s Inspector General Has Expressed Dim Views of Congressional Oversight

Trump’s Inspector General Has Expressed Dim Views of Congressional Oversight

WASHINGTON — Amid the blur of President Trump’s impeachment proceedings last December, the Government Accountability Office received a terse message from the White House regarding its investigation into why security aid to Ukraine was withheld.

The inquiries of Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog arm had already been rebuffed by the Department of Defense and it received spotty responses from the White House Office of Management and Budget. On Dec. 20, a White House lawyer made clear that there would be no further cooperation.

“The White House does not plan to respond separately to your letters,” Brian D. Miller, senior associate counsel to the president, wrote in a three-sentence email to the G.A.O.’s general counsel.

On Monday, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Trump tapped Mr. Miller to assume one of the country’s most important jobs. The president nominated Mr. Miller to be the special inspector general for pandemic recovery, a position that would make Mr. Miller the watchdog for a $500 billion Treasury Department bailout fund meant to rescue businesses stricken by the coronavirus.

The nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, has not gone over well with Democrats, who insisted on strict oversight as a condition of passing the $2 trillion rescue package that Mr. Trump signed into law late last month.

With Democrats already raising alarm about a presidential slush fund, Mr. Miller is poised to become one of the most scrutinized men in Washington.

“The role of an inspector general is to protect the public interest — not the interest of one man,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, who requested the G.A.O. investigation into the withholding of Ukraine aid. “Brian Miller, as a member of the president’s own legal team, has worked to hide the truth from the American people and the Congress.”

Mr. Van Hollen said Mr. Miller’s work for the president largely undercut his ability to serve the role as an independent watchdog. “His work under President Trump has been totally inconsistent with what’s required of an inspector general — transparency and impartiality,” he said.

Questions about the independence of the program’s inspector general emerged almost immediately after the president signed the $2 trillion economic relief package into law.

In an unusual signing statement, Mr. Trump suggested he had the power to decide what information a newly created inspector general intended to monitor the fund could share with Congress. That triggered concern among lawmakers and watchdog groups, who said Mr. Trump’s statement went further than previous presidents in limiting the authority of the inspector general.

The president has not been shy about his resistance to independent oversight in recent weeks, particularly individuals who played a role in the impeachment proceedings.

Last Friday night after Mr. Trump announced his intent to nominate Mr. Miller, he also said that he was firing the intelligence community inspector general who alerted lawmakers to a whistle-blower complaint about his dealings with Ukraine.

At a news conference on Monday, Mr. Trump assailed a Department of Health and Human Services inspector general for writing a report detailing equipment shortages that hospitals are facing as they confront the coronavirus. Mr. Trump suggested that the report was politically motivated because the inspector general was first appointed during the Obama administration.

Mr. Trump eroded the oversight architecture of the $2 trillion economic stabilization package further on Tuesday when he removed Glenn Fine, the Department of Defense’s acting inspector general who had been tapped to lead a separate Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, and replaced him with Sean O’Donnell, who is the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Fine had been selected to lead the committee by a panel of inspectors general.

A White House spokesman declined to make Mr. Miller available for an interview and would not comment on whether he had a role in crafting the signing statement or discuss his level of involvement in the impeachment process.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, said that questions about Mr. Miller’s role in what he considered to be obstruction of oversight efforts will be central at confirmation hearings that would install him in a critical job.

“Has he been involved more broadly in the White House’s efforts to thwart all oversight and hide documents from Congress?” Mr. Wyden said. “If Republicans intend to move Mr. Miller forward, he needs to be fully transparent about the issues he’s worked on in the White House Counsel’s Office.”

At first glance, Mr. Miller appears to be a nominee who fits the mold of Attorney General William P. Barr — a former federal prosecutor and inspector general who has signaled his belief in the broad powers of the presidency and cast doubt about the motives and authority of congressional oversight.

While working for the Justice Department, Mr. Miller prosecuted Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the terrorist who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and John Walker Lindh, an American who went to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. He also served as the inspector general of the General Services Administration from 2005 to 2014, overseeing a sprawling agency in charge of the federal government’s real estate.

If confirmed, Mr. Miller would be returning to more familiar turf with a task of rooting out fraud and waste. In a less polarized era his credentials would likely be considered more than sufficient.

“I remember Brian being a very solid I.G., and I think he’ll do fine with this role,” said Tony Fratto, a former Treasury official in the George W. Bush administration who was White House spokesman at the start of the 2008 financial crisis. “I think a lot of people were concerned about what kind of person Trump would nominate, and my reaction was just that this is a solid pick.”

After attending Temple University on a wrestling scholarship, Mr. Miller went to Westminster Theological Seminary before shifting gears and going to law school.

Mr. Miller was tapped for the G.S.A. job by Mr. Bush, and he gained a reputation as one of the nation’s most scrupulous investigators. His yearlong probe into wasteful spending by the agency’s leaders led to the resignation in 2012 of its administrator and other officials who were caught spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lavish conference in Las Vegas.

In recent years, Mr. Miller has become outspoken about protecting inspectors general from becoming political tools weaponized by Congress, where some lawmakers have proposed relocating inspectors from individual agencies into a single, independent unit that would be accountable to Congress.

Mr. Miller said that idea, which was proposed in 2018 by former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, posed a “danger” to the independence of inspectors general. In an op-ed published in The Hill newspaper in 2018, Mr. Miller laid out an argument that suggested he, like Mr. Barr, is a believer in the “unitary executive theory” that says presidents have broad control over the executive branch.

“The notion of an independent inspector general within the executive branch remains suspect by those who insist on a unitary executive,” Mr. Miller wrote, explaining that he believed congressional influence over inspectors general creates separation of powers concerns. “The argument that this very independence is inconsistent with a unitary executive becomes more persuasive when I.G.s act on behalf of the legislative branch.”

Mr. Miller elaborated on that point during a discussion at Patrick Henry College late last year.

“If you’re reporting to the Congress in that fashion, your independence is jeopardized,” Mr. Miller said, describing many congressional requests as politically motivated. “You’re looking at whatever the political agenda is for the Congress or the Senate and being used basically as a tool for them.”

Those comments could raise doubts among lawmakers that Mr. Miller will abide by the statutory requirements that the special inspector general submit quarterly reports to Congress and notify Congress if requests for information are refused.

“If he is appointed special inspector general, he’s going to be, in his mind, accountable to the executive,” said Virginia Canter, a former senior ethics counsel at the Treasury Department. “I don’t think he’s going to be accountable to Congress.”

“I think it’s very troubling and it’s a red flag to me,” she said.

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