But they tried to tie several strings to their $2 trillion check, chief among them the creation of several independent government watchdogs. Yet one by one over these past few weeks, President Trump is fraying those strings. And there may not be much Congress can do about it.
The coronavirus oversight — and Trump’s efforts to weaken it — can be broken down into three main parts.
1. Congress included in the bill a rule that no business that the president or any White House official (like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner) with a majority stake in can get the money. Trump’s company is losing money as four of its clubs and hotels close.
What Trump’s done to weaken this? Nothing on this front. He has said he doesn’t know what government assistance he could get. But ProPublica found there are loopholes his hotels could use to get separate loans from this coronavirus aid if they tried.
2. The bill sets up a committee of independent watchdogs working in government agencies, known as inspectors general, to oversee how the entire $2 trillion bill gets spent, from $1,200 checks the IRS is issuing most Americans, to the $350 billion in small business loans, to money for hospitals. These inspectors general are not the ones spending the money, but they have investigative authority to track where it goes and make sure it’s all above board. They’re called the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.
What Trump’s done to weaken this? That committee recently named as their chair Glenn Fine, an inspector general for the Defense Department who has served Republican and Democratic presidents. Shortly after he was picked, Trump removed him without giving details about why. Trump installed his own choice to lead the committee, Sean O’Donnell, who is the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Trump is the head of the executive branch, which includes inspectors general, so he can technically make such personnel decisions. But he arguably violated the spirit of the law in doing so, because the whole point of this committee is to independently investigate power without interference.
3. Congress set up a new inspector general position to specifically watch over the more than $400 billion that can go to big corporations. This is the part of the legislation Democrats and some Republicans were most nervous about; it’s a huge amount of money, and the last time big business got government bailout money in the 2008 financial crisis, some of those banks used it to boost executive pay or buy back stocks. Congress limited corporations’ ability to do that this time, but not for forever.
What Trump’s done to weaken this? Two big things.
The bill calls for this new inspector general to report to Congress if the executive branch doesn’t provide sufficient information for investigations. As soon as Trump signed the bill in March, he attached a statement basically saying he wouldn’t abide by that part of the law — at least not without “presidential supervision” of what the inspector general tells Congress. Trump in that statement also said he wouldn’t abide by the bill’s regulation that he consult Congress on certain spending, calling that part of the bill “congressional aggrandizement.”
Trump framed all this as a constitutional issue: Congress approved the money for his administration to spend. They don’t have the right to be consulted on how the money is spent.
Secondly, this bill grants Trump the authority to nominate someone to the inspector general role, subject to approval from the Republican-controlled Senate. On Monday, Trump nominated a White House lawyer, Brian Miller, who played a role in blocking a nonpartisan congressional office from getting information during the Ukraine scandal. An official from the George W. Bush administration praised Miller’s work, but his job at the White House has some Democrats questioning his loyalty.
What can Congress do to push back?
Ask tough questions of his new inspector general: The Senate has to approve Trump’s nomination of Miller to the inspector general job overseeing the corporate loans. But given the initial version of the bill Republicans crafted included little oversight, we can assume they’d be okay with Trump’s pick, and all their votes would be enough to confirm him to the job. Miller does have experience as an inspector general. Before he was a White House lawyer, he helped uncover an expensive Las Vegas business trip by government officials during the Obama administration.
Publicize what they see as wrongdoing: In the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has set up a congressional committee to oversee the Trump administration’s entire response to the coronavirus, including this $2 trillion package. “The president is undermining it,” Pelosi told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa of the oversight requirements in the bill. “We’re going to have to make sure the public understands why he would do that.” She said that committee is starting its work shortly, but members and their staff are scattered across the country in their homes.
Maybe sue the administration: Since Trump is framing his rights around his constitutional powers, one option for Democrats is to ask the courts to chime in by suing him. Steve Rosenthal, a legal expert at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, told The Post in March that’s an option, albeit an extreme one that could take months to settle.