ANALYSIS

White House bumbles keep IRS scandal in spotlight

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement about the Internal Revenue Service controversy on May 15, 2013.
KEVIN LAMARQUE | REUTERS
U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement about the Internal Revenue Service controversy on May 15, 2013.
Posted May 22, 2013, at 11:42 a.m.

WASHINGTON — It is never good for an administration when a front-page newspaper article about an ongoing controversy begins as follows: “The White House offered a new account Monday of how and when it learned . . . ” That’s what readers of The Washington Post awoke to on Tuesday. In trying to contain the controversy and protect President Barack Obama, White House officials have only added to questions about what happened.

Until this week, the story of how White House officials learned that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting conservative groups was fairly straightforward. White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was notified in late April that a Treasury Department inspector general’s audit of the IRS was nearing completion. The president, officials said, didn’t find out about any of it until May 10, when it became public.

The implication was that Ruemmler was told in general terms about the report and that the information was kept within her office. But over the past few days, officials have offered a more detailed description of what really happened. Ruemmler was informed that political targeting had taken place and shared that information with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and some others on the senior staff. And there were subsequent discussions between White House and Treasury officials about the report.

But no one shared any of this information with the president. Why? White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday that Ruemmler had recommended not doing so. “In these situations,” he said, “the counsel made the decision that this is not the kind of thing that you notify the president of, of an investigation that’s not complete, because it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so.”

Some lawyers agree with that position. But is that the way a White House should work? Most previous administrations had an unwritten rule: the doctrine of no surprises. The president should not be kept in the dark about impending problems, particularly ones that are potentially explosive politically.

At a minimum, according to some officials who served in past administrations, someone, presumably the chief of staff, would give the president a quiet heads-up about something as charged as political malfeasance at the IRS. Not because the president could or should do anything to interfere with the investigation, but as a warning to be prepared. And to be able to answer the question of what the president knew and when.

Why would it be inappropriate for the president to know what his chief of staff, his counsel and others on his senior staff knew and were talking about with others in the government? Would telling him require him to do something inappropriate? Would he be open to criticism if he knew and stood idly by? Perhaps, but if his top advisers knew weren’t inclined to act inappropriately, why would the president?

There are still many unknowns about internal White House transactions over the past three weeks. No one has said just how explicit Ruemmler was with McDonough or others about the nature of what she was told. Did she play down the implications of the report to the point that others did not regard it as a potential problem? Maybe it didn’t seem worrisome enough to tell the president. And, had he been told, would he have responded more quickly when the news broke, rather than waiting three days to express his disapproval?

White House officials regard all these questions as largely irrelevant. As Carney put it on Monday, “Despite all the media interest in our April 2013 awareness, it’s important to remember that the misconduct, of course, stopped almost a year earlier.”

They have argued that what happened at the IRS was the result of actions by agency employees, not something ordered from the White House or Treasury Department officials. And they have portrayed the president’s stated ignorance of the report as evidence of a hands-off approach by the White House as the IG report was in its final stages of preparation.

All of this is part of a strategy to protect the president — and to show that when he found out what happened, he acted as quickly as he could to deal with it. He sought the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner, replaced him with someone trusted by Republicans and Democrats, and ordered a 30-day assessment of the IRS, which has the benefit of giving everyone breathing room as congressional hearings continue.

What isn’t irrelevant is that the White House has added to the confusion by changing its story of who knew what and when. By happenstance or design, officials are employing an approach that former White House press secretary Mike McCurry once classically described as “telling the truth slowly.”

McCurry meant that as a way to say that sometimes White House officials know only part of the story — in that case it was the Monica Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton’s presidency — and must take care not say any more than they know at the time.

None of the focus on the changing White House accounts should detract from the bigger outrage, which is the actions of the IRS officials who targeted the conservative groups. But what has happened this week highlights that in trying to contain the controversy and shield the president, White House officials have left themselves open to more criticism.

Another question is now being asked by officials from past administrations: Why were Treasury officials not more proactive in pursuing tea party groups’ complaints that they were being harassed by the IRS? Why didn’t anyone in the White House raise questions about whether these accusations were real?

The IRS is a quasi-independent agency. It resides within the Treasury Department, but since the news of the controversy broke, White House officials have treated it as though it were off limits. It’s obviously improper for a White House to order the IRS to go after opponents, as former president Richard Nixon did. But is it improper to exercise oversight?

Administration officials no doubt take some comfort in the fact that the president’s approval ratings are holding steady in the face of this and other controversies.

Also, the devastation from the tornado that hit near Oklahoma City on Monday helps to keep everything in perspective.

But if White House officials hoped the IRS controversy would quickly go away, they have acted in a way designed to produce just the opposite.

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