Back when the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of “tea party” and other conservative groups was said to be the work of a few rogue agents in the far-flung outpost of Cincinnati, President Barack Obama said that he was “angry” about the “inexcusable” misconduct and that “Americans are right to be angry about it.” Now that a high-level IRS employee has given testimony that brings the matter as high up as the presidentially-appointed chief counsel’s office, the official administration line is that it’s just another “phony scandal.”
The White House press secretary introduced the phrase a few times before Obama himself took it up in a speech about the economy, suggesting that anyone who cares about the IRS’ harassment of his political enemies simply doesn’t care about the unemployed, and now Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is gamely using the slogan. In an enjoyably confrontational Sunday morning interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, which demonstrates why the administration hates that network with such a white-hot intensity, Lew stubbornly insisted that both right-wing and left-wing groups had been treated with equal “very bad judgment,” that those responsible have been removed and the need reforms instituted, and that “There’s no evidence of any political decision maker who was involved in any of those decisions.”
Wallace was admirably feisty with his follow-up questions, but time constraints apparently prevented him from noting that an Inspector General’s investigation finds that conservative groups were subjected to “very bad judgment” by the IRS far more frequently than their liberal counterparts, that the only people removed from the agency were an agency head set to retire anyway and a Fifth Amendment-pleading director of the exempt organizations division who continues to draw her sizeable paychecks. Nor was he able to ask exactly what reforms have been instituted, or why they should be any more successful than the rules already in place to prevent such abuses. Having already noted the sworn testimony by a highly-placed veteran agent that puts the scandal in the chief counsel’s office, but without noting the chief counsel’s intriguingly timed meeting at the White House just two days before a directive was issued on how to handle “tea party” applications, Wallace asked about the investigations that Lew insisted had found no evidence of political motive.
In the same speech that included his “anger” about the “inexcusable” IRS scandal the president also said he had personally directed to Lew get to the bottom of the matter, so Wallace naturally wondered if Lew’s dogged digging had included asking the chief counsel about his involvement. Following some hemming and hawing, Lew eventually conceded that he had not because “I am leaving the investigation to the proper people who do investigations, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do the investigation.” So the person that the president picked to investigate the matter doesn’t think he should be investigating it, but he does assure the public that he and his department will cooperate with all other investigations, although so far his department has only provided less than a percent of the documents that the Senate investigating committee has requested.
Somehow it all sounds, well, phony.
— Bud Norman