President Joe Biden has exercised his authority to reverse or nullify as many Trump-era decisions as possible since entering office in January.
His recent decision to fire Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul, however, has sparked widespread pushback — including from Saul himself.
Saul fights back
Appointed to the position in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump to serve a six-year term, Saul referred to his sudden termination as a “Friday night massacre” and questioned the president’s authority to fire him. He offered no indication that he intends to exit the job until his term expires in 2025 and noted that he plans to return to work on Monday.
Unlike many of Trump’s appointees, there was very little Democratic opposition to Saul’s confirmation, and he received a bipartisan Senate vote of 77-16 in 2019. Upon taking on the new role, he set about efforts to update and modernize Social Security operations while working to crack down on fraud and abuse.
Some union workers, advocates, and congressional Democrats soon began to criticize his performance, however, and reportedly applied increasing pressure on the White House to fire him as soon as possible.
Although Saul was not quoted directly in initial reports, a spokesperson asserted that he had no intentions of leaving prior to the expiration of his term.
Reports on Friday determined that Biden asked both Saul and Deputy SSA Commissioner David Black to step down. Black conceded to the request but Saul did not, leading to him being fired and replaced by Kilolo Kijakazi, who had served as deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy.
Biden defends decision
Kijakazi was named acting commissioner until a permanent replacement could be confirmed.
Saul later spoke out in his defense, asserting that the email he received announcing his termination came without any warning.
“I consider myself the term-protected commissioner of Social Security,” he declared. “This was the first I or my deputy knew this was coming. It was a bolt of lightning no one expected. And right now it’s left the agency in complete turmoil.”
The Social Security Act permits a president to remove a commissioner from office “only pursuant to a finding … of neglect of duty or malfeasance,” and the White House released its own statement defending the decision.
“Since taking office, Commissioner Saul has undermined and politicized Social Security disability benefits, terminated the agency’s telework policy that was utilized by up to 25 percent of the agency’s workforce, not repaired SSA’s relationships with relevant Federal employee unions including in the context of COVID-19 workplace safety planning, reduced due process protections for benefits appeals hearings, and taken other actions that run contrary to the mission of the agency and the President’s policy agenda,” the Biden administration asserted.