They also pressed him about some recent decisions by Trump to remove other inspectors general, including the intelligence community watchdog who had alerted Congress to a whistleblower complaint that came to be at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
Miller, who has worked at the White House since December 2018, refused to say whether he had any involvement in the firing of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general whom Trump called a “total disgrace” after removing him last month, on the same day that he nominated Miller to the new post of special inspector general for pandemic recovery.
Miller also refused repeatedly to offer his opinion on Trump’s decision to fire Atkinson or say whether he agreed that Atkinson was a “total disgrace.”
“I’m just not familiar with the facts or the law in that situation, so I’m reluctant to give an opinion where I don’t have all the facts,” Miller told Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).
Miller did not directly answer when asked whether he had any role in Atkinson’s removal, instead saying he read about it in a newspaper.
Miller also sidestepped several questions about other steps Trump has taken to remove inspectors general. Last week, Trump moved to replace the top watchdog at the Department of Health and Human Services after her office released a report on the shortages in testing and personal protective gear at hospitals. He also recently removed the acting Pentagon inspector general, who had been expected to serve as head of a separate coronavirus oversight entity composed of inspectors general of multiple agencies and tasked with overseeing the overall federal response.
“My experience as an inspector general is that an inspector general always faces the possibility that they will be fired. … You just have to do your job and let the consequences be what they may be,” said Miller, whose background includes nine years as inspector general for the General Services Administration, where he was credited with acting independently and investigating corruption inside an agency with a budget of more than $20 billion that oversees thousands of federal properties.
As special inspector general for pandemic recovery, Miller would be in charge of overseeing a roughly $500 billion Treasury Department fund created as part of Congress’s $2 trillion Cares Act in late March.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) predicted that Miller would get fired if he produced any conclusions the White House did not like.
“I have no doubt that if you go against the president he’s going to remove you because he’s done it time and time and time again,” Tester said.
Miller said: “I will be independent. If the president removes me, he removes me. If I am unable to do my job, I will resign. But I will not comment on the White House counsel’s operation.”
The hearing took place under unusual circumstances, with the Senate newly back in session after being away from Washington since late March because of the coronavirus. Miller testified in person, wearing a mask, and a number of committee Republicans were also present in person, mostly wearing masks. Committee Democrats appeared over video uplink, without any major technological breakdowns.
The hearing came as Democrats have ramped up their complaints about the White House’s management of the economic rescue package, questioning whether taxpayer money is being wasted and whether safeguards are being put on any of the programs.
After approving nearly $3 trillion to rescue the economy from the coronavirus pandemic, Congress has moved slowly in formally scrutinizing how the money has been spent. The Trump administration has already said it is backstopping more than $500 billion in newly issued business loans. It has also begun issuing more than $200 billion in “economic impact” payments to households. There has been little disclosure about how these programs are performing or whether any mistakes are being corrected.
Lawmakers have not conducted any oversight hearings yet, largely because they have steered clear of the Capitol during the pandemic.
And the White House is clamping down on testimony from administration officials, insisting on approving all requests. Last week, the White House blocked lead administration scientist Anthony S. Fauci from appearing before a House subcommittee that wanted him to testify this week.
Trump on Tuesday told reporters why he did not want Fauci to testify before the House: “The House is a setup. The House is a bunch of Trump haters.” On Friday, a White House spokesman had offered a different explanation, saying it would be “counterproductive” to have Fauci or others involved in the coronavirus response take time out from their work to appear before Congress.
Fauci and others will testify before the Senate’s health committee next week, though the process will largely be run by Republicans.
Senate Democrats have lambasted Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for bringing the Senate back into session this week without plans to devote more attention to coronavirus oversight or legislation, especially since hearings are planned for unrelated nominees Democrats oppose.
“Providing vigorous oversight of legislation we’ve already passed would have been a better use of the Senate’s time,” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
“Oversight is beginning already,” McConnell countered at a news conference later, pointing to the Senate hearing with Fauci planned for next week.
The new special inspector general for pandemic recovery is only one piece in a complicated and overlaying set of oversight mechanisms Congress has put in place to monitor the coronavirus response, leading Trump to complain that he is again being subjected to a Democratic witch hunt. Addressing reporters Tuesday before leaving the White House to travel to Arizona, Trump complained about a new select committee that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created over the objections of Republicans.
“They put every Trump hater on the committee, the same old stuff,” Trump said. “They frankly want our situation to be unsuccessful, which means death, which means death, and our situation is going to be very successful.”
But the issues that have emerged with the federal spending in response to the coronavirus — such as big businesses tapping into a small-business loan program — have been uncovered by the media, not Congress or any of the oversight groups. That is because they have mostly not yet begun to function.
A congressional oversight commission created in the Cares Act, like the new inspector general tasked with overseeing the $500 billion Treasury Department fund, cannot begin to function until its chairperson is appointed jointly by Pelosi and McConnell. The two have spoken, but it is unclear when they will make their appointment.
The separate select committee of lawmakers that Pelosi created also is in limbo because Republicans have not yet announced their appointments to the panel or even said whether they will participate.
Despite the multiple oversight mechanisms in place, not everybody is convinced the process has worked so far. “If the idea was to create enough redundancy that there’d be effective oversight, mission most definitely not accomplished,” said Neil Barofsky, who was the first inspector general for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program passed at the height of the financial crisis in 2008.
Barofsky and others have raised concerns about a statement Trump issued when he signed the Cares Act. The statement suggested he might seek to block 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.
Questioned about this, Miller pledged that he would alert Congress if he was not getting the information he needed from the executive branch, and he said he would subpoena information if necessary.
There is one oversight group that has gotten up and running to a degree — the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a group of inspectors general charged with overseeing the entire federal response to the coronavirus and all the spending approved thus far and into the future. Even though Trump removed the inspector general initially chosen to chair the committee, the group launched a website last week and also announced the appointment of an executive director. It does not appear to have gotten much further than that.
Adam J. Levitin, a professor at Georgetown Law who played a key oversight role with the financial crisis bailout programs of 2008 and also consulted with Democrats on the oversight language in the Cares Act, said the most problematic program thus far appears to be the small-business Paycheck Protection Program.
If Miller is confirmed, he would not be tasked with scrutinizing this program — it is being run by the Small Business Administration, which has its own inspector general. Multiple problems have come to light in which large businesses tapped into the program, in some cases returning the funds after their involvement became publicized.
Levitin said there could be problems with other aspects of the federal spending that are not yet known, because there has been no real oversight conducted. “There are some unknown unknowns which scare me,” Levitin said.