What Did the President Know About the IRS Scandal and When Did He Know It?
Describing the White House reaction relating to the IRS scandal, that old Mitchell Trio song from the 1960s by Tom Paxton comes to mind:
We didn't know at all.
We didn't see a thing.
You can't hold us to blame.
What could we do?
It was a terrible shame.
But we can't bear the blame.
Oh no, not us, we didn't know.
"What did the president know and when did he know it" is a question asked by both parties through the years of Washington scandal and administration wrongdoing. It may seem trite, even tiresome. But the purpose behind the question is deadly serious. The answer is measured against previous statements by the president to determine if he has been lying about the extent of his involvement in whatever scandal has rocked his administration.
In this case, everyone wants to know when President Obama found out about conservative groups being targeted by the IRS. At Thursday's press conference with Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, the president was specific about when he found out about the Treasury Department's inspector general's report:
I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the IG report before the IG report had been leaked through the press. Typically, the IG reports are not supposed to be widely distributed or shared. They tend to be a process that everybody is trying to protect the integrity of.
But as Lucy Madison of CBS News points out, the White House was informed of the IG report several weeks ago:
According to White House Spokesman Jay Carney, the White House counsel learned of the IRS targeting last month, but Mr. Obama says he had only learned of it through the press. Asked why he was not informed earlier, by the White House counsel, Mr. Obama noted that "typically the I.G. reports are not supposed to be widely distributed or shared" in order to protect the integrity of the investigation.
But Bloomberg's Julianna Goldman did not ask about the IG report. She asked about the president's knowledge of the IRS targeting conservatives:
JG: Can you assure the American people that nobody in the White House knew about the agency’s actions before your Counsel’s Office found out on April 22nd? And when they did find out, do you think that you should have learned about it before you learned about it from news reports as you said last Friday?
So what did the president know about IRS targeting of conservatives before last Friday? He claims he knew nothing of the IG report, but that wasn't the question. The question was whether he thinks he should have been informed about the targeting before the news broke last Friday.
A distinction without a difference? Perhaps in trying to parse the president's response we are engaging in some overreach, but the question is important enough that it demands an answer. Did the White House counsel or any other executive branch employee tell the president that a report was coming out from Treasury's IG about conservatives being targeted by the IRS?
The president has left the definite impression that he took action and became outraged almost immediately after the news reports broke last Friday. But if he learned of the general parameters of IRS actions three weeks ago, why the delay? And why allow an IRS manager to casually let the news come out in an offhand response to the last question of a morning panel at the ABA's national meeting?
The fact that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration had a report on the issue just days from release was not yet widely known. Audience members couldn’t understand why Lerner had chosen that panel as the venue in which to make her admission. While Lerner’s remarks have since been referred to as a “slip” by lawmakers and media reports, several people in the audience on Friday said they saw Lerner refer to notes when answering the question, as if she’d prepared the response in advance. The whole thing was so strange, some even speculated that the question itself had been a plant.
“We all just sort of looked at each other and couldn’t quite understand,” Ellen Aprill, a professor at Loyola Law School who was in the audience, told TPM on Monday. “It seemed so odd that it was such a detailed response to the question rather than part of her prepared remarks.” (emphasis by author)
The IG report was released on Tuesday. By letting the bombshell drop the previous Friday, it gave the administration four days to create a plausible narrative that protected the president from the scandal's taint. It's no secret that Fridays are the preferred day to dump bad news on the media given the lack of in interest by the public in news over the weekend.
Assuming Lerner's leak was deliberate -- and evidence strongly suggests it was -- one must also assume it was part of a public relations effort at damage control. Conveniently, it gave the president cover to claim ignorance of the specifics in the IG report. But one has to wonder who fashioned the PR effort, timing the roll-out of the information and creating talking points to which Lerner referred during her answer. The IRS has its own public affairs shop, but are we to believe that a damage-control effort vital to Obama's presidency was handled at the agency level?
In order to assume that the White House counsel told no one in the White House of the coming IG report on April 22, we must assume that she is either brain-dead or incompetent. Former Clinton aide Lanny Davis thinks the latter:
I’ve been told today by several reporters that President Obama’s White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, knew for several days — perhaps weeks —that some Internal Revenue Service officials were engaging in political targeting of conservative groups, and that she did not tell the president as soon as she knew even partial reports about the story.
With all due respect to someone who has impeccable legal credentials, if she did have such foreknowledge and didn’t inform the president immediately, I respectfully suggest Ms. Ruemmler is in the wrong job and that she should resign.
If Ms. Ruemmler did know about this IRS story and didn’t inform the president immediately, then, respectfully, that must mean she didn’t appreciate fully the mammoth legal and political implications for the U.S. government as well as the American people of a story involving IRS officials abusing power and possibly violating criminal laws.
It is also hard to understand why some people in the media who apparently knew about this foreknowledge by the White House counsel and her failure to tell the president missed this story and its significance.
When did the president know it? Davis points out that the White House counsel -- the president's personal lawyer -- is "one of the two or three most important positions on the White House staff." This is someone who presumably has nearly instant access to the president -- especially if it deals with such an explosive matter. And yet we are told that Ms. Ruemmler's lips were sealed and she played "I've got a secret," keeping the president and presumably the rest of the administration in the dark on information that could at least be called political dynamite.
So, to sum up, we are asked to believe the following about the president's foreknowledge of the IRS scandal:
1. Lois Lerner accidentally let slip the news that the IG was developing a report that was going to accuse her section of targeting conservatives.
2. IRS officials told the White House counsel on April 22 of the general nature of the IG's report but failed to provide any details.
3. White House counsel kept the information to herself, apparently not thinking the information important enough to tell the president.
4. President Obama was shocked -- shocked, I tell you -- to hear of the IRS's targeting of conservatives last Friday.
Why is this important? Who cares if the president found out three weeks ago or last Friday? After all, it doesn't prove the president ordered the IRS to go after his enemies.
No, it doesn't. But it proves the president a liar. And if he is lying about when he found out, one must ask why, Is he lying to cover up the fact that he didn't immediately go before the American people and inform them of this travesty, preferring instead to develop a damage-control plan that came to fruition last Friday? We don't know, but the press needs to pin the president down on this timeline of what he knew and when he knew it.
The people need to know if their president is a liar. Somewhere, Howard Baker is smiling.