Trump pick for pandemic response watchdog pledges independence amid Democratic skepticism

Trump pick for pandemic response watchdog pledges independence amid Democratic skepticism
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The former White House lawyer nominated to oversee the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic defended his independence Tuesday as Senate Democrats raised concerns about President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE’s past battles against watchdogs.

Brian Miller, Trump’s nominee to be special inspector general for pandemic recovery (SIGPR), pledged during a Tuesday confirmation hearing that he would not be influenced by the president if confirmed to oversee how the federal government spends and lends trillions of dollars to fight COVID-19 and the economic destruction it's caused. 

“The fact is, I have no doubt that if you go against the president, he's gonna remove you because he's done it time and time and time again,” said Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats ready to put a wrap on dragged-out talks Providing affordable housing to recruit our next generation of volunteer firefighters The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat MORE (D-Mont.) during a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee.

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“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 do my job faithfully and independently,” Miller responded.

Democrats have expressed deep skepticism that Miller, a White House lawyer since 2018, could be trusted to hold Trump accountable after the president purged several inspectors general (IGs) and dismissed two whistleblowers from their positions in his administration.

Since April, Trump has fired, berated or nominated replacements for inspectors general for the departments of Defense, Education and Health and Human Services, along with the CIA, intelligence community, as well as a panel of government watchdogs charged with overseeing the coronavirus response.

Trump also removed Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell Progressive veterans group endorses McAuliffe in Virginia governor's race Should reporters Woodward, Costa have sat on Milley-Trump bombshell for months? MORE from his position with the National Security Council after Vindman testified about his concerns over the president’s dealings with Ukraine during the House impeachment hearings. 

And Rick Bright, the former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, alleges in a whistleblower complaint filed Tuesday that he was removed from his role as the administration’s top vaccine chief for his attempts to “prioritize science and safety” over politics.

Trump’s track record with IGs, particularly those critical of his actions, prompts concerns from Democrats that he picked a watchdog inclined to give him or his allies a pass. The Trump administration has faced increasing criticism over its response to the pandemic, while the president himself has blamed China’s lack of transparency for the crisis.

Even so, some of Trump’s fiercest critics opened the door to approving Miller.

“The demands on you will be thoroughly intense because this president has already fired multiple inspectors general,” said Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate Democrats propose corporate minimum tax for spending package The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Budget negotiators: 72 hours and counting Democrats face critical 72 hours MORE (D-Mass.).

“You will, however, have the chance to defend your independence and your integrity by your actions. If you stick to the commitments that you have made here, and you are an aggressive watchdog, I'm prepared to work with you," she continued.

Republicans also praised Miller for his past work as the IG for the General Services Administration (GSA) from 2005 to 2014. Miller repeatedly feuded with former GSA chief Lurita Doan, a fellow Republican who resigned in 2008 after several alleged ethical violations raised by Miller and other government watchdogs.

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“We have people questioning your independence, particularly under the weight and the pressure of an administration,” said Sen. Thom Tilllis (R-N.C.). 

“But you, again, investigated someone who was appointed by President [George W.] Bush, you yourself were appointed by President Bush. That investigation didn't change one bit, regardless of the pressure you got from Capitol Hill and, I would suspect, others," he said.

The Banking Committee also vetted Dana Wade to be assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development in what is believed to be the first Senate hearing conducted with some senators joining remotely. 

While Miller, Wade, a handful of GOP senators and committee staff attended the hearing in person, several senators from both parties called in from their home states via videoconferencing.

The hearing ran remarkably smoothly despite the technological and logistical obstacles spurred by the pandemic, but not without small reminders of the challenges facing many Americans now forced to work from home.

As Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownWhen the Fed plays follow the leader, it steers us all toward inflation Which proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? Senate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents MORE (D-Ohio) questioned Miller from quarantine at home, one of his dogs could be heard barking in the background. Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Dems see path to deal on climate provisions Sanders faces difficult choice on slimmed-down budget bill Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations MORE (D-Va.) assured colleagues that the deep yellow tinge of his skin was due to a poor video connection, not jaundice. And Warren, known for her fiery interrogations of congressional witnesses, sparred instead with an unresponsive microphone.

“In terms of just operationally and technologically, I think there were a lot of challenges to bring this hybrid type of committee meeting together,” said Sen. Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoDemocrats narrow scope of IRS proposal amid GOP attacks Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Yellen confident of minimum global corporate tax passage in Congress MORE (R-Idaho), the panel’s chairman, according to pool reports.

“And I think the recording studio and the Rules Committee and all of the people who came together and did so much work to help make this work, that it was a success. It was a big success in that context," he said.