What’s Next? Trump’s Plan to Dismantle Oversight of Pandemic Stimulus

Issues
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Donald Trump at a podium with a reporter in the foreground raising her hand.
President Donald J. Trump participates in a news briefing by members of the Coronavirus Task Force in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Monday, May 23, 2020. Trump said he was looking at ways to reduce the shutdown to aid business while many doctors say the worst is yet to come in regards to COVID-19. Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI/Alamy Live News

As record numbers of Americans file for unemployment, entering a new stage of economic precarity, President Trump continues to strategically unravel the oversight of the two-trillion dollar pandemic stimulus funds meant to keep them and their families afloat. And potentially for the long term.

His decisive actions to weaken the oversight bodies established to hold the White House accountable for its administration of the stimulus, combined with his public statements, point to an undermining of oversight with long-term ambitions. Trump is strategically establishing an infrastructure for corruption instead of oversight, and we are footing the bill.

President Trump first signaled his intent to thwart accountability during a press conference, when he announced that “I’ll be the oversight” for the $500 billion funds earmarked for corporate bailouts. Congress added oversight provisions to the bill, but Trump signed the bill with a caveat: he will not comply with the requirements for the Special Inspector General (SIG) and Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), meant to provide primary oversight of the entire stimulus package.

Subsequently, Trump nominated a political appointee from the White House Counsel’s office to serve as the SIG. The SIG is an oversight role that demands impartiality and that is not likely to come from someone who worked to defend the president during the impeachment trial. The current dynamic creates an obvious appearance of a conflict of interest for a position geared to extract information from the president and his cabinet.

Most recently, Trump removed the newly appointed chairman of PRAC, Glenn Fine. A panel of Inspectors General (IGs) appointed Fine to lead PRAC, but Trump removed Fine from his acting IG role at the Department of Defense, thereby removing him from the role of PRAC chair.

At the same time, he has reinstated a formerly terminated White House employee, and decided loyalist to make personnel hiring and firing decisions for oversight. This is his latest blow to the oversight of the funds and we should expect more to come.

Trump’s actions may appear as chaotic impassioned decisions but have resulted in a carefully calibrated strategy to cut off oversight of the stimulus for the near future. The remaining oversight body, the Congressional Oversight Commission, cannot begin to map out an oversight strategy until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell agree on a Chairperson. The odds of that happening soon are not great.

Why is heightened oversight of the stimulus funds important? The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is supposed to help Americans as they navigate this fraught time, and it is vital that the implementation of the law reflect that purpose. The disbursement of the CARES Act funds are almost certain to result in a staggering amount of fraud, waste, and abuse.

For perspective, the 2008 bailout, the Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP), provides context. The bailout was roughly $500 billion. The Special IG for TARP recovered $11 billion from fraud and convicted 381 individuals. This $2.2 trillion bailout could easily result in exponentially more fraud if left unchecked.

It is imperative that the public is made aware of all efforts to impede oversight of the CARES Act and Campaign Legal Center (CLC) will continue to spotlight the president’s moves to dismantle it.

Kedric is CLC's General Counsel and Senior Director of Ethics
Delaney's work focuses on government ethics, accountability, and transparency.