Trump Suggests He Can Gag Inspector General for Stimulus Bailout Program

• Mar 27, 2020

When President Trump signed the $2 trillion economic stabilization package on Friday to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, he undercut a crucial safeguard that Democrats insisted upon as a condition of agreeing to include a $500 billion corporate bailout fund.

In a signing statement released hours after Mr. Trump signed the bill in a televised ceremony in the Oval Office, the president suggested he had the power to decide what information a newly created inspector general intended to monitor the fund could share with Congress.

Under the law, the inspector general, when auditing loans and investments made through the fund, has the power to demand information from the Treasury Department and other executive branch agencies. The law requires reporting to Congress “without delay” if any agency balks and its refusal is unreasonable “in the judgment of the special inspector general.”

Democrats blocked a final agreement on the package this week as they insisted on stronger oversight provisions to ensure that the president and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin could not abuse the bailout fund. They feared that Mr. Trump, who has previously stonewalled congressional oversight, would do the same when it came to the corporate aid program.

But in his statement, which the White House made public about two hours after the president signed the bill, Mr. Trump suggested that under his own understanding of his constitutional powers as president, he can gag the special inspector general for pandemic recovery, known by the acronym S.I.G.P.R., and keep information from Congress.

“I do not understand, and my administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the S.I.G.P.R. to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required” by a clause of the Constitution that instructs the president to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, the statement said.

Mr. Trump has a history of trying to keep damaging information acquired by an inspector general from reaching Congress.

The impeachment scandal began with the disclosure that a whistle-blower had filed a report about something that the intelligence community’s inspector general deemed to be an “urgent concern.” A federal law states that the director of national intelligence should send Congress such a complaint within seven days.

But the Trump administration decided it could lawfully withhold that report from lawmakers. It eventually reversed course under political pressure, bringing to light that an intelligence official had raised alarms about Mr. Trump withholding congressionally mandated military assistance to Ukraine to coerce that country’s government into announcing investigations that would give Mr. Trump personal political benefits.

The signing statement also challenged several other provisions in the bill, including one requiring consultation with Congress about who should be the staff leaders of a newly formed executive branch committee charged with conducting oversight of the government’s response to the pandemic.

Citing his understanding of his power to supervise executive branch staff positions, Mr. Trump said he would not interpret that as mandatory although he anticipated that they would be consulted anyway.

Mr. Trump’s legal team is led by Attorney General William P. Barr, who is known for his embrace of a maximalist interpretation of presidential power, including the so-called unitary executive theory. Under that doctrine, laws that bestow independent decision-making authority on subordinate executive branch officials are unconstitutional because the president wields total control over deciding how to exercise executive power over the government.

Presidential signing statements are official documents issued by presidents when they sign new legislation into law. They leave a record of the president’s understanding of the meaning of newly created statutes and essentially instruct the rest of the executive branch to interpret the laws in the same way. Congress has no opportunity to veto them.

The device becomes subject to dispute when presidents use it to mount a constitutional challenge to a new law that imposes some requirement or limitation on their power, essentially nullifying the new limit in the eyes of the executive branch. Often such disputes center on matters for which there is scant likelihood that the matter will come before a court for judicial judgment, giving the executive branch final say as a practical matter.

Signing statements, which are not mentioned in the Constitution, were once rare, but presidents started to issue them more frequently starting in the second term of the Reagan administration.

They became controversial under President George W. Bush, who used them to challenge more provisions of new laws than all previous presidents combined, including asserting a right to authorize officials to bypass laws like a torture ban and oversight provisions of the USA Patriot Act he had agreed to as a condition of breaking a Senate filibuster to get an extension of the law passed when it was about to expire.

The American Bar Association, in 2006 and 2012, urged presidents to stop using signing statements, which it called “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers.” It said presidents should veto bills that they deem to be flawed, and give Congress the opportunity to override their judgments or fix the legislation.

But executive branch legal teams in administrations of both parties have maintained that the device is legitimate and useful. Some veterans of Democratic administrations that used signing statements — as Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did, albeit less aggressively — have argued that it is impractical to veto important bills over minor flaws and that the focus should instead be on the legitimacy of the theories of executive power that presidents invoke as the basis for their challenges.


You can read the full article by Charlie Savage here

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