Biden named Kilolo Kijakazi, the current deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy, to serve as acting commissioner until the White House identifies a permanent nominee to lead the agency.
As the head of an independent agency whose leadership does not normally change with a new administration, Saul’s six-year term was supposed to last until January 2025.
The White House said a recent Supreme Court ruling, followed by a Justice Department memo on Thursday affirming the president’s authority “to remove the SSA Commissioner at will,” gave the president power to treat the position like that of other traditional political appointments.
But Saul said in an interview Friday afternoon that he would not leave his post, challenging the legality of the White House move to oust him.
“I consider myself the term-protected commissioner of Social Security,” he said, adding that he plans to be back at work on Monday morning, signing in remotely from his New York home. He called his ouster a “Friday Night Massacre.”
“This was the first I or my deputy knew this was coming,” Saul said of the email he received from the White House Personnel Office on Friday morning. “It was a bolt of lightning no one expected. And right now it’s left the agency in complete turmoil.”
Saul’s firing came after a tumultuous six-month tenure in the Biden administration during which advocates for the elderly and the disabled, and Democrats on Capitol Hill, pressured the White House to dismiss him. He had clashed with labor unions that represent his 60,000 employees, who said he used union-busting tactics. Angry advocates say he dawdled while millions of disabled Americans waited for him to turn over files to the Internal Revenue Service to release their stimulus checks — and accused him of an overzealous campaign to make disabled people reestablish their eligibility for benefits.
“Since taking office, Commissioner Saul has undermined and politicized Social Security disability benefits, terminated the agency’s telework policy that was utilized by up to 25 percent of the agency’s workforce, not repaired SSA’s relationships with relevant Federal employee unions including in the context of COVID-19 workplace safety planning, reduced due process protections for benefits appeals hearings, and taken other actions that run contrary to the mission of the agency and the President’s policy agenda,” a White House statement said.
The White House declined to comment on Saul’s threat that he would not give up his post. But federal personnel experts said the administration could block him from accessing the agency’s computer networks and cut off his paycheck.
A wealthy former women’s apparel executive and prominent Republican donor, Saul, 74 — who served on the board of a conservative think tank that has called for cuts to Social Security benefits — had overseen one of the biggest operations in the federal government since his 2019 Senate confirmation. The Social Security Administration pays out more than $1 trillion a year to about 64 million beneficiaries, who include seniors, the disabled and low-income Americans.
In the interview, Saul described himself as “very upset” about his sudden dismissal and cited two years of progress modernizing the agency’s day-to-day operations on his watch, including digitizing online payments, replacing aging information technology systems, improving years of slow customer service and reining in a workforce that he said had abused a popular pilot telework program before the coronavirus pandemic forced him to send employees home to work.
“There was terrible abuse,” he said, adding: “I quite frankly feel I’m doing an excellent job there.”
For their part, unions and advocates for the elderly and disabled cheered Saul’s and Black’s firings. Under Trump, Saul — who attended the University of Pennsylvania with the former president — had proposed what they called radical changes to make it harder for older and disabled workers to be found eligible for disability benefits and blocked access to assistance for non-English speakers. He also tried to increase the frequency of medical reviews to semiannually for disabled people receiving benefits, a proposal Biden blocked.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), who chairs the House Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight, said in a statement that Saul and Black had “acted as foxes in the henhouse” with an agenda “to impose cruelty on seniors and the disabled.”
Saul said his goal was to stop fraud by people improperly claiming benefits. “It’s unfair to the people who deserve the benefits,” he said.
Unions that represent administrative law judges who rule on disability benefits applications were infuriated by a policy Saul instituted to shift adjudications from them to agency attorneys, saying the move eroded their judicial independence and threatened protections for disabled Americans because agency attorneys would lean toward denying benefits. Saul said Friday that no agency attorneys had ruled in these cases.
The administrative law judges and union representing thousands of other agency workers clashed with Saul early in his tenure for imposing contracts whose provisions were not fully negotiated through collective bargaining. The tension continued into the Biden administration.
Critics also took issue with the fact that Saul never moved near suburban Baltimore, where the agency is based. Saul said Friday that he stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington from his confirmation in 2019 until March 2020, when the pandemic forced the agency to shift to remote work. He said he personally covered the hotel costs.
As word spread of Saul’s possible dismissal, congressional Republicans on Friday accused the administration of politicizing the Social Security Administration and noted that Saul had been confirmed by the Senate in 2019 by a wide margin.
“This removal would be an unprecedented and dangerous politicization of the Social Security Administration,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted.
The Social Security Administration, which began in 1935, was later folded into Health and Human Services but regained its status as an independent agency in the mid-1990s to insulate it from politics, with a commissioner’s six-year term designed to straddle White House administrations. Under the Social Security Act, an incoming president can fire the commissioner only for cause.
However, the Supreme Court issued two rulings recently that strengthened executive power when it comes to independent agencies led by a single appointee.
Last year, the court ruled that a law protecting the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from presidential supervision violated the separation of powers, leading Biden to remove Trump’s appointee his first day in office. The court issued a similar decision in late June, ruling that the president has the authority to remove the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Biden replaced the Trump-appointed agency head on that same day.
The June decision raised the prospect that the head of the Social Security Administration would be next.
“The SSA has a single head with for-cause removal protection,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in an opinion, “so a betting person might wager that the agency's removal provision is next on the chopping block.”
Saul said the court opined solely on the president’s power to dismiss the housing agency head.
After Biden was inaugurated, Saul shifted course somewhat to align his actions with the new president’s priorities. He boosted outreach to vulnerable populations to help them access benefits after applications plunged during the coronavirus pandemic and agreed to renegotiate contracts with the unions under pressure from the Biden administration and a ruling by an arbitrator.
But his continued tenure alarmed many Democrats, who noted that the Trump holdover was in a position to put his imprint on one of the government’s biggest agencies. Biden pledged during his campaign to increase benefits for Social Security recipients to at least 125 percent of the federal poverty level.
“President Biden needs someone who can fulfill his promise of protecting and strengthening Social Security,” Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Social Security subcommittee, said in an interview Thursday. “Here’s the nation’s most important insurance benefit.”
Saul declined to say whether he was considering legal action against the Biden administration, but added: “I intend to protect my rights.”
Amy B Wang and Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Saul’s decision to renegotiate contracts with federal employee unions came after pressure from the Biden administration and a ruling by an arbitrator.