The almost daily disclosures by the White House about who knew about an IRS investigation before it became public has helped stoke the furor over the agency’s scrutiny of tax-exempt groups and given the president’s harshest critics an opening.
Over the past week, President Barack Obama’s aides have been amending and revising and offering sometimes conflicting accounts of how the administration learned that an audit found Internal Revenue Service employees improperly selecting “Tea Party” or other small-government groups for extra scrutiny.
Republicans such as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp have seized on the changing stories, accusing Obama of fostering “a culture of cover-ups” that also includes the administration’s reaction to the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya and the Justice Department’s secret subpoenas of reporters’ telephone records.
“They handled this miserably,” said Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary during President George W. Bush’s first term.
The man currently in the job, Jay Carney, suggested he wouldn’t dispute that analysis.
“There’s been some legitimate criticisms about how we’re handling this” Carney said yesterday. “We take the path we’ve taken and accept that it’s got some potholes in it.”
The series of revelations and congressional investigations are hitting as Obama is trying to get traction for his second-term domestic agenda, get an agreement on raising the federal debt limit and deal with the bloody civil war in Syria as well as confrontations with Iran and North Korea.
So far, no evidence has emerged that Obama or anyone in the White House was involved in initiating IRS scrutiny of the groups seeking tax-exempt status or withholding disclosure of the inspector general’s investigation. Still, the administration has dragged out its account of how and when it learned of the findings.
Since Carney first disclosed, on a flight to New York on May 13, that the office of White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was informed last month that the IG was finishing a report, the administration has made four revisions to the information.
Carney initially suggested Ruemmler was given general information regarding “a review about matters involving” the IRS office in Cincinnati, and that was reinforced by White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer in interviews May 19 on Sunday morning news interview programs.
The next day, Carney was forced to correct the record. “We knew of the subject of the investigation, and we knew the nature of some of the potential findings,” he said on May 20.
He also corrected the date that counsel’s staff was first made aware of the pending report from the week of April 22 to a specific day, April 16, and revealed that Ruemmler was briefed on April 24 about IRS employees “improperly scrutinizing” the organizations. She then told White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough as well as “other members of the senior staff.”
In a fourth revision, administration officials said this week that the Treasury department communicated with the White House about the IRS’s plans to disclose the IG’s investigation.
Carney yesterday acknowledged having to correct the record and blamed the tension between the demands for immediate answers and the need to be accurate.
“Quickly and comprehensively are not objectives that always meet,” he said. “If it turns out that the information, new information we have requires a correction, we do that.”
Veterans of previous administrations had some sympathy for Carney’s predicament.
“It’s sometimes very hard to assemble the information you need to have in one place so that you have coherent and comprehensive account of what happened,” said Mike McCurry, who served White House press secretary when President Bill Clinton was in the middle of impeachment proceedings. “They are struggling with that right now, but they’ll get to the right place.”
Fleischer said the White House “went off the rails” because Carney was put in an untenable position of having to answer questions without all the information.
“He gave an overly broad, sweeping statement that he later then had to back off of, which then has been contradicted by the steady drip, drip, drip -- here’s who else was informed,” Fleischer said.
“It is impossible for the press secretary to interview each and every person at the White House about each and every contact” with the IRS or the Treasury Department, he said.
When that happens, the president should direct his staff to assemble a full summary of who knew what, when. “The press secretary can’t do it.”