The IRS Scandal Continues to Unfold

If "senior White House officials were focused on shielding" the president, then that necessarily means that they were not focused on serving the American people by getting to the bottom of this scandal. Right?

As soon as White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler heard about an upcoming inspector general’s report on the Internal Revenue Service, she knew she had a problem.

The notice Ruemmler saw on April 24 gave her a thumbnail sketch of a disturbing finding: that the IRS had improperly targeted tea party and other conservative groups. She 
shared the news with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior White House aides, who all recognized the danger of the findings.

But they agreed that it would be best not to share it with President Obama until the independent audit was completed and made public, in part to protect him from even the appearance of trying to influence an investigation.

This account of how the White House tried to deal with the IRS inquiry — based on documents, public statements and interviews with multiple senior officials, including one directly involved in the discussions — shows how carefully Obama’s top aides were trying to shield him from any 
second-term scandal that might swamp his agenda or, worse, jeopardize his presidency.

The episode also offers a glimpse into the workings of Obama’s insular West Wing, which has struggled to cope in recent weeks with the IRS scandal, the continued fallout from last year’s deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s tracking of journalists as part of leak investigations.

But Ruemmler and McDonough’s careful plan for the IRS was upended on May 10, when Lois Lerner, a senior official at the agency, broke the news by admitting that the IRS had given extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Senior White House officials were stunned to see the IRS trying to get ahead of its own story — and in doing so, creating a monstrous communications disaster for an administration that appeared not to know what its agencies were up to.

I'll refer back to Stephen Bainbridge on the issue of whether the president can be made aware of what is going on in his government without seeming to influence an investigation (short version: yes, he can--to coin a phrase). More from the good Professor Bainbridge here. Meanwhile, it is nice to see that the members of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board have eaten their Wheaties:

Every day brings new revelations about who knew what about the IRS targeting conservative groups during President Obama's re-election campaign, but the overall impression is of a vast federal bureaucracy run amok. While the White House continues to peddle the story of a driverless train wreck, taxpayers are being treated to a demonstration of the dangers of an unwieldy and unaccountable administrative state. Look, Ma, no hands!

In his press events, Mr. Obama has said that while he learned about the Cincinnati rogues on the news, he plans to "hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions." But the White House began its response by pushing the line that the IRS is an "independent agency," and Mr. Obama has since given the impression that he sits atop a federal government which he does not, and could not possibly, control.

White House senior adviser Dan Pfieffer encouraged that fable on this Sunday's news shows, implying that the Treasury's internal process for handling the unfair treatment of political targets trumped the President's right to know. When CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley asked Mr. Pfieffer why the White House and top Treasury officials weren't notified, he explained that Treasury's investigation was ongoing and "Here's the cardinal rule: You do not interfere in an independent investigation."

Now there's a false choice. The Treasury Inspector General's report, for starters, was an audit, not an inviolable independent investigation. He lacked subpoena power and could bring no criminal charges. Having the President know of the IRS's mistakes so that he could act to correct the problem was not a bridge too far or even clouding the purity of the process. Those things could have been done simultaneously without compromising Treasury's investigation.

Some adult supervision at the White House would be very useful right now. Too bad we don't seem to have it.