White House braces for congressional probes of coronavirus response

Multiple oversight entities in Congress are vying to examine the response.

April 10, 2020, 4:00 AM

Late last month, when asked how the administration will hold the Treasury Department accountable for the $500 billion coronavirus relief fund the department is administering to large businesses, President Trump had a blunt, yet predictable answer.

“Look, I’ll be the oversight. I’ll be the oversight,” he told reporters.

Ten days later, Trump announced he would be nominating a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, Brian Miller, to serve as the special inspector general for pandemic recovery.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 8, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 8, 2020, in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The move infuriated some Democrats who were quick to condemn the nomination of a White House lawyer for a role that is typically nonpartisan and independent. Miller also previously played a role in rebuffing investigations into the military aid withheld from Ukraine that led to Trump's impeachment.

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Democrats are not only looking into how the unprecedented allocation of stimulus money is distributed to states and businesses, but also what warning signs officials may have issued that could have prevented the scale of the current crisis and whether the administration was under-prepared.

In response, the Trump White House is already moving to plan its defense ahead of the potential congressional probes, according to sources familiar with the administration's work.

Trump is no stranger to fervent resistance of congressional oversight. In 2018, White House counsel Pat Cipollone assembled a team of more than a dozen lawyers, led by his deputy Mike Purpura to focus solely on handling congressional inquiries and investigations. That team, along with Trump’s personal attorneys, secured his ultimate acquittal by the Republican led Senate during the impeachment trial.

This time, the same players are leading the charge. The lawyers in the White House counsels office are spearheading oversight matters, with assistance from Vice President Mike Pence’s counsel, and are working with other government agencies — like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security — to set the groundwork for what they anticipate Congress will have interest in investigating, the sources said.

The arrangement is partly owed to Pence’s role as the leader of the White House’s coronavirus task force, where he is intimately familiar with the work being done by multiple different agencies involved in the response.

When reached by ABC News, a White House spokesman declined to comment on this story.

Perhaps a preview of battles to come, Democrats have begun questioning the actions of White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, with plans to ramp up oversight of multiple government agencies.

The House Oversight and Homeland Security committees sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) last Thursday, demanding any communications be turned over to the committees by April 15 related to Kushner’s efforts to bolster the supply chain, after the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services found hospitals faced severe shortages of coronavirus test supplies. The committees are also asking for clarification about Kushner's role in FEMA operations.

The administration is unlikely to turn over these documents and in the event the committees issue a subpoena for Kushner’s communications, the White House will likely argue those could contain privileged material and therefore will not provide them to Congress, according to sources.

PHOTO: Men walking wearing protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic on April 08, 2020, in New York.
Men walking wearing protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic on April 08, 2020, in New York.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

As the president's lawyers prepare for this next oversight phase, House Democrats have also been in a long legal battle with the president over his financial records. Last year his accounting firm, Mazars USA, refused to comply with a congressional subpoena, pending the outcome of the case.

Lawyers for the House of Representatives reached out to the president’s outside legal counsel earlier this week seeking for them to join a potential motion to hold oral arguments for two cases seeking financial records via teleconference and Trump’s legal team declined this offer, according to sources familiar with the communications. Unlike many lower federal courts, the Supreme Court does not conduct hearings by phone or videoconference.

The cases were delayed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s legal team wants to wait for the court to sort out their own calendar.

Now, multiple oversight entities in Congress are vying to examine the administration's coronavirus response.

The CARES Act, which created the unprecedented $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief fund, established a five-member bipartisan panel tasked with monitoring the distribution of the $500 billion specifically earmarked for larger businesses. But even though some of the money is already flowing, the panel, to be made up of individuals chosen by congressional leaders, hasn't been fully formed yet.

Thus far, only Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has announced his pick for the panel: Bharat Ramamurti, the former deputy policy director for economic policy for Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have yet to announce their appointments. McConnell and Pelosi must jointly appoint the fifth member, and it’s unclear where their negotiations stand.

Historically, the House Intelligence and Financial Services Committees have also played watchdog roles, and many Democratic lawmakers on those committees will likely be clamoring to be a part of the historic oversight effort.

Last week, in an attempt to consolidate coronavirus oversight among House lawmakers, Pelosi announced the creation of a separate bipartisan House select committee to oversee the $2 trillion federal response to the coronavirus crisis, tapping Democratic whip Rep. Jim Clyburn to lead the bipartisan panel.

Pelosi said the House committee will have subpoena power and be authorized to “examine all aspects of the federal response to the Coronavirus and ensure the taxpayer dollars are being wisely and efficiently spent.” Clyburn has described the panel as “forward looking," focused on tracking the $2.2 trillion in taxpayer money.

Some Democrats thought Clyburn's description was too narrow and felt the committee should also examine the administration's initial response to the coronavirus outbreak, and the president's own repeated efforts to downplay the threat. A spokesperson for Clyburn's office on Thursday declined to offer updates on the panel's formation and focus.

Speaker Pelosi could name some members of that House committee as soon as today, according to senior Democratic aides. But with one week having passed since the announcement, there are still no concrete details about the house committee's structure. Sources have said forming the committee hasn’t been that easy as many any members -- both Democrats and Republicans -- are jockeying for a slice of the action.

Just weeks after the months-long impeachment inquiry ended in Trump’s acquittal, and as congressional watchdogs are gearing up to fight against the potential for abuse, fraud, and waste within the coronavirus response, Trump has already shown resistance to the looming fight.

In addition to his remarks that he would “be the oversight,” the president indicated he would attempt to control what Miller, the special inspector general, reports to Congress.

”I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [special inspector general for pandemic recovery] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision,” Trump wrote in a signing document that accompanied the CARES Act.

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ABC News' Ben Siegel contributed to this report.

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