In IRS scandal, new GOP tactic is ignorance

The newest attack in the IRS flap is that Obama should have intervened in the I.G.'s independent review. Huh?

Topics: IRS, 501(c)4, The Tea Party, Conservatives, White House, inspector general, Treasury Inspector General,

Because it’s not a real scandal unless the White House is involved, those with an interest in tarnishing the president have made the new front line in the IRS controversy a question over whether the administration should have taken earlier action to stop the agency’s targeting of conservative groups, even before the completion of the Treasury Department inspector general’s report on the matter. Here’s Eric Cantor this morning on CNBC:

CANTOR: Well I can speak to my frustrations about the administration’s action or lack of action. If you’ve got an ongoing IG investigation or audit and there comes to you information about this type of behavior where you are discriminating against political opponents. I do not accept the fact that the White House says well we couldn’t interfere with that audit or that investigation. That’s not true. They know that kind of activity was going on. That is clearly a point at which they should have gone in and said don’t do that anymore.

To the Wall Street Journal, that hands-off approach suggests a lack of political accountability, as they editorialized today: “The White House continues to peddle the story of a driverless train wreck.” The American Spectator, meanwhile, saw a “smoking gun.” Other Republican members of Congress cried foul and claimed the administration was trying to cover up the report by not going public with it the moment they heard about it.

White House officials say they first learned of the IRS report in April. But the inspector general did tell the Treasury Department’s general counsel in June of last year, prompting Republicans to ask why he didn’t share the news with the White House or the public. It wasn’t kicked up the chain of command, administration officials say, because that would have been inappropriate. “Here’s the cardinal rule: You do not interfere in an independent investigation,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfieffer said on CNN this weekend.

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So should they have intervened earlier, or at least told the president? “Actually, that would have been just about the worst thing they could have done,” New Yorker legal columnist Jeff Toobin wrote. Glenn Fine, who served as the inspector general of the Department of Justice from 2000 to 2011, told Toobin: “The thing you most want to avoid is that the White House, or anyone else, tells the I.G. what to do or contacts individuals who are being questioned in the audit and tries to influence their responses as well.”

So by not telling the president, officials ensured that there would be no perception of presidential meddling in the independent investigation. Instead of covering it up, the White House was making sure everything proceeded aboveboard, even if it meant delaying recourse to the improper targeting of Tea Party groups.

Another former Justice Department inspector general wrote an Op-Ed in the Hill stating that Treasury and the IRS “followed standard practice by not sharing [the] findings,” and that “it would be unprecedented in my experience for anyone outside the agency to become involved in the customary back and forth between the IG and the agency.”

Watchdog groups agree, saying it would have been inappropriate for Treasury’s lawyers to tell the White House, and even more so for the White House to do something about it.

And you don’t have to take their word for it. As it turns out, Republicans in Congress, including House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, knew about the inspector general’s report last year, but said nothing publicly at the time. Why not? “You don’t accuse the IRS until you’ve had a nonpartisan, deep look. That’s what the IG has done. That’s why the IGs in fact exist within government,” Issa told Bloomberg News last week.

So some Republicans, like Eric Cantor, are attacking the White House for letting the I.G. investigation run its course while others, like Darrell Issa, are defending their own decisions to let the investigation run its course. One has to wonder if Cantor is really arguing from good faith, or if this just another desperate attempt to find some way to implicate the White House in a mid-level bureaucratic disciplinary action.

And what would happen if the White House did actually take action before the I.G.’s report was complete? It’s pretty safe to say the very same people attacking him now would be up in arms about improper political meddling in a independent investigation.

Alex Seitz-Wald
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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