On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin finally bowed to growing national outrage around the White House’s sketchy accounting for emergency COVID-19 relief funds connected to Donald Trump’s controversial $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program. Trump and company hailed the move as another sign of the administration’s transparency, but close readers are finding more questions than answers.
Why did large hedge funds and private equity firms unaffected by COVID-19 closures receive hundreds of millions of dollars from a relief program designed to help struggling small businesses? How did so many Trump family members and hotel industry friends tap into the PPP while politically unconnected entrepreneurs across America were told funds had run dry? Don’t expect any answers from the White House.
Trump is no stranger to bragging about his record-setting transparency, but the truth rarely lives up to the hype. Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn in May 2019, Trump declared, “There has never been, ever before, an administration that’s been so open and transparent.” A few days later, Trump crowed that he was easily “the most transparent president in history.”
Despite the bravado, Trump and his senior officials have waged an unprecedented war of obstruction and obfuscation against real and imagined opponents on Capitol Hill and in the media. As recently as June 11, Mnuchin flatly refused to disclose the names or loan amounts of companies seeking federal coronavirus aid, going so far as to prevent the Small Business Administration from publishing routine loan data SBA has been sharing since 1991.
Now the American public knows why Mnunchin and Trump went to such extreme lengths to resist disclosing PPP recipients. While only 12 percent of minority small business owners who applied to receive PPP funds were approved, Treasury waived long standing ethics rules to allow Trump business partners like a Hawaii hotelier to claim up to $5 million in taxpayer cash.
The White House’s heated resistance to providing any public data about the administration’s COVID-19 spending is just the latest example of Trump’s pathological aversion to accountability—a habit dating back to the administration’s earliest efforts to conceal the details of Trump’s inaugural finances. But Trump’s stunning mishandling of America’s COVID-19 response compelled even friendly Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to demand increased visibility into how Trump and Mnuchin are spending over $660 billion in taxpayer funds.
It shouldn’t have taken until early July for Democrats and Republicans on the Hill to demand accountability and transparency for a program they authored. The PPP didn’t need to become another Trump administration slush fund. By now House Democrats know not to trust Trump officials with large-scale cash distribution schemes, but once again, establishment Democrats found themselves temperamentally unable to force a prolonged fight over including accountability and transparency mechanisms in their own legislation.
That isn’t to say Democrats have been silent in the months since passing a raft of emergency COVID-19 measures. In late April, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for a Senate investigation into Trump officials “playing favorites” with PPP funds. In the House, Rep. Katie Porter authored a bill to make public by default the names of businesses requesting PPP loans and how much federal aid they received.
As has become depressingly familiar among establishment Democrats in Congress, though, this latest push to hold Trump accountable comes too late. Democratic lawmakers and Hill staffers I’ve spoken to offer different reasons for fumbling PPP accountability: the COVID-19 crisis was pressing down on legislators, making any delays politically risky; Democrats feared being tarred as anti-business obstructionists; there would always be time to fine-tune the legislation after the first round of funds went out.
Instead of opting for an ounce of prevention, the lack of political will among House Democrats now necessitates 660 billion pounds of cure. If recent history has taught politics-watchers anything, it is that voters have little interest in punishing legislators for claims of “obstructionism.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell built an entire leadership strategy on the blanket deployment of legislative speed bumps and delays, and deployed it with ruthless effectiveness during the Obama administration. Legislative meekness is a one-way ticket to political irrelevance.
Just because Democrats missed the boat on PPP accountability doesn’t mean hope is lost. There are plenty of opportunities for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership to display leadership on the COVID-19 crisis. In March, the CARES Act created a bicameral congressional committee intended to bring the House and Senate together to tackle the unprecedented challenge coronavirus poses to our economy and public health. It’s a great idea. It’s also a sham.
Nearly four months since the CARES Act authorized this bipartisan COVID-19 committee, Republicans have resisted appointing a chairperson to lead the committee’s work. Republican Senators have openly floated former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford for the role, but that would ensure no meaningful oversight of Trump administration excesses. Trump considers Dunford one of the key figures in his decision to run for president. For his part, Dunford publicly pledged never to discuss Trump, even after leaving military service.
Democrats shouldn’t be giving do-nothing Senate Republicans a free pass to market this hollow, leaderless committee as a triumph of bipartisan cooperation, especially when Rep. Jim Clyburn is overseeing serious, data-driven COVID-19 policymaking as chair of the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis. Propping up Republican-led “oversight” efforts undermines the meaningful work Democrats are doing to get a long-overdue handle on the coronavirus crisis.
Last month, the Trump administration called for a $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus package managed by the White House. Given Trump’s disastrous handling of PPP funds, Democrats would be insane to give Trump another free hand to distribute nearly twice as much money. Any discussion of a stimulus package—any discussion of handing Donald Trump money under any circumstance—must come with strong oversight to ensure that money isn’t pocketed by various Kushners and Kanyes.
Trump’s mishandling of emergency coronavirus funds is more than a political disaster; it jeopardizes the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans who rely on the government to be an honest broker in times of national crisis. House Democrats have the oversight authority to prevent Trump from fleecing small businesses for the benefit of his friends. Millions of Americans are depending on them to use it.