During his speech on the economy last month in Galesburg, Illinois, Barack Obama suggested Washington should stop focusing on an “endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals.” He repeated the line about “phony scandals” in another speech on July 25 and in his weekly address on July 27. Obama, whose approval rating has been falling since the spring, has been rocked by months of scandal coverage. His administration’s strategy to change the subject, it seems, is to channel its inner Holden Caulfield.
White House press secretary Jay Carney kicked things off a few days before Galesburg during his daily briefing with reporters, cautioning Washington not to be “buffeted about” by “fake scandals.” The next day, Carney spoke about “phony scandals” that have “captured the attention of many here in Washington.” The narrative was set by July 24, the day of Obama’s speech, when Carney told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough: “It shouldn’t be on the skirmishes that cause gridlock, it shouldn’t be on the phony scandals that have consumed so much attention here, all to come to naught.”
Which scandals, exactly, are the phony ones? When pressed, one White House official pointed to the investigation into the IRS’s extra scrutiny of conservative and Tea Party groups applying for tax-exempt status.
“The allegation . . . by many Republicans was that the White House was directing the IRS to target Tea Party groups,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama, at a breakfast in Washington last week sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “That was the allegation, and that has turned out to be completely false.”
Pushing the administration’s line that what Obama cares most about is “addressing” the problem and “ensuring that it never happens again,” Pfeiffer accused Republicans like House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa of trying to use “legitimate questions” about the IRS to “score political points.” That, Pfeiffer says, is what Obama and Carney mean by calling the scandal phony: It’s grounded in anti-Obama politics, not substance.
The congressional investigation into the IRS’s special targeting of conservative nonprofits is still underway, but what it’s revealed since the scandal broke doesn’t square with Pfeiffer’s explanation. According to House Republicans leading the investigation, IRS employees testified that Lois Lerner, the agency official who oversaw the division that scrutinized groups seeking tax-exempt status, “ordered Tea Party cases to go through a multilayer review that included her senior adviser and the IRS chief counsel’s office.” The chief counsel is one of two positions at the IRS appointed by the president, and incumbent William Wilkins met with the president at the White House several times.
If there’s no connection whatsoever between the IRS’s malpractice and the White House, the principals in the administration haven’t been forthcoming with evidence to that effect. Lerner, a career bureaucrat, invoked the Fifth Amendment at a House Oversight Committee hearing in June and did not testify. And on Fox News Sunday last week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew refused to say whether he had asked Wilkins about his role in targeting conservative groups. “I am leaving the investigation to the proper people who do investigations,” Lew told host Chris Wallace. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do the investigation.”
None of which proves, as Pfeiffer claims Republicans allege, that the administration directed the IRS to target its political opponents. But testimony from IRS employees and the public silence of Lerner and Lew have led Republicans to push for more information.
“If it were phony, then why did Lois Lerner take the Fifth Amendment?” asks Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and member of the House Oversight Committee. Gowdy says the committee is still interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence.
Obama himself didn’t always consider the IRS scandal phony. In a public address in May, he called the “misconduct” uncovered by the agency’s inspector general “inexcusable.”
“Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it,” the president said. “I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives.” Obama added he would direct Lew to ask the acting IRS commissioner to step down.
And heads did roll. Lerner was placed on leave, while acting commissioner Steven Miller resigned and the commissioner of the tax exemption division, Joseph Grant, retired early. If, as the administration now contends, the scandal was nothing more than Republicans trying to “score political points,” why did it force these officials out?
“There is a fundamental difference,” Pfeiffer said last week, “between if something goes wrong and misconduct happens, and then some sort of political scandal that many people in Washington have compared to Watergate and things like that, when there is nothing that suggests any sort of political involvement.”
But Gowdy isn’t buying it. “It is patently absurd that the new standard for propriety is if the president knew about it,” he says. “It’s his administration.”
It’s revealing that although the administration refers to “phony scandals” in the plural, they’ve shut up about Benghazi. As House speaker John Boehner said on August 1, “We need to get to the bottom of what happened that terrible night, why it happened, and how we can prevent similar tragedies in the future. We’re also going to continue to investigate the IRS for its abuse of power. There’s nothing ‘phony’ about these scandals, Mr. President.”
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.