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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 John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report 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) TesterOvernight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Senate Democrats press VA for vaccine distribution plan President is wild card as shutdown fears grow 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 VindmanEsper: If my replacement is 'a real yes man' then 'God help us' Ukrainian president whose call with Trump sparked impeachment congratulates Biden Alexander Vindman congratulates Biden, Harris on election victory 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.

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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 WarrenInequality of student loan debt underscores possible Biden policy shift Thomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation 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 BrownOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (D-Ohio) questioned Miller from quarantine at home, one of his dogs could be heard barking in the background. Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHarris shares Thanksgiving recipe: 'During difficult times I have always turned to cooking' Biden leans on foreign policy establishment to build team Trump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin 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 CrapoMnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed Shelton's Fed nomination on knife's edge amid coronavirus-fueled absences 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.