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White House Counsel Knew Of IRS Investigation “Weeks Ago”

The Wall Street Journal is out today with a report that the White House Counsel’s Office was aware of the Inspector General’s investigation of IRS political targeting several weeks ago:

The White House’s chief lawyer learned weeks ago that an audit of the Internal Revenue Service likely would show that agency employees inappropriately targeted conservative groups, a senior White House official said Sunday.

That disclosure has prompted a debate over whether the president should have been notified at that time.

In the week of April 22, the Office of the White House Counsel and its head, Kathryn Ruemmler, were told by Treasury Department attorneys that an inspector general’s report was nearing completion, the White House official said. In that conversation, Ms. Ruemmler learned that “a small number of line IRS employees had improperly scrutinized certain…organizations by using words like ‘tea party’ and ‘patriot,’ ” the official said.

President Barack Obama said last week he learned about the controversy at the same time as the public, on May 10, when an IRS official revealed it to a conference of lawyers. The president’s statement drew criticism, focusing attention on his management style and whether he has kept himself sufficiently informed about the agencies under his authority.

Others, including veterans of previous scandals, said the counsel—whose role is to advise the president on all legal matters concerning his job and the White House—was right to avoid telling Mr. Obama about the audit’s early findings. Doing so could have caused a new storm by creating the appearance of meddling in an independent investigation that hadn’t yet concluded, former officials said.

The White House, which declined to make Ms. Ruemmler available for comment Sunday, wouldn’t say whether she shared the information with anyone else in the senior administration staff.

The new detail doesn’t help answer some fundamental questions about the IRS scandal, including how it began and who, if anyone, in the administration was aware of the severity of the inspector general’s probe before last November’s presidential election.

Instead, it focuses attention on the White House’s handling of the matter, which has blown up into the kind of crisis that could persist.

When findings are so potentially damaging, the president should immediately be informed, said Lanny Davis, who served as a special counsel to President Bill Clinton.

Several conservative bloggers have jumped on this story as if it demonstrates some kind of evidence of scandal, but I’m just not seeing it. The White House has already said several times that nobody in the Executive Office of the President was aware of the activities at the IRS until the Counsel’s Office was informed about the soon to be completed Inspector General’s report sometime at the end of April. The President has said that he didn’t personally become aware of the story until it became public about ten days ago. To date there’s no evidence to contradict either of these assertions and, indeed, the Wall Street Journal report would seem to corroborate the White House’s claims on both counts.

So, where’s the “scandal” here? Frankly I don’t see it.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. JKB says:

    The scandal is that appointed members of the Administration are keeping the President in the dark so that he cannot effectively administer the federal bureaucracy or stop wrongful behavior by low-level employees.

    One would think that upon learning of the IRS behavior that Obama would want to be proactive and stomp on such activity quickly and harshly to avoid the appearance of impropriety by himself or his appointed representatives. Instead, he was apparently not told and now his legacy, even the legitimacy of his re-election are tainted.

    How sad that he has been shunted aside and must learn of such outrageous behavior as that of the IRS from the public news broadcasts instead of from those he enlisted to aide him in overseeing the vast federal bureaucracy.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 20

  2. Carpeicthus says:

    Yeah, I’m sure the scandal is that these conservatives are feeling bad for Obama. You are just throwing s*** at the wall and seeing if any of it sticks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  3. Septimius says:

    The White House, which declined to make Ms. Ruemmler available for comment Sunday, wouldn’t say whether she shared the information with anyone else in the senior administration staff.

    Well, I’m glad the White House cleared that up.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 9

  4. @JKB:

    That comment assumes that it is even proper for the President to be notified of ongoing investigations of government agencies before they are made public

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  5. @JKB:

    Also, are you aware that the WH Counsel learned about the investigation in April 2013, long after the targeting had ended according to the IG’s report

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

  6. Jr says:

    The Right is just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 4

  7. JKB says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Except this was an administrative investigation on the proper functioning of the agency. Not a criminal investigation. Not to mention, agency official had apparently been informed and took ineffective action to stop this violation of agency policy.

    So where exactly is it proper to keep the person ultimately responsible for the proper functioning of the Executive branch. Not to mention, there is as far as we know, no indication of Obama being a person of interest in the investigation.

    @Doug Mataconis:

    That’s the White House Counsel, but what about the many civil service managers and political appointees who are responsible for the proper execution of government functions? Do they not have a duty to report up the chain of command? Where was the break down of the chain of command? Why must an IRS manager plant a question to reveal wrongful behavior in the press so that the White House can become aware of it.

    You, like so many in DC, seem to subscribe to the theory that the Constitutional officers elected and appointed have no responsibility for the functioning of the federal government. An odd idea given no one elected the hired bureaucrats and I don’t remember the Constitutional amendment permitting the President to abdicate his oversight of the Executive Branch. Nor Congress abdicating theirs but that is another issue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 12

  8. anjin-san says:

    @JKB

    stop wrongful behavior by low-level employees.

    The President has a rather full plate, behavior of low-level employees, good or bad, is not really part of his portfolio.

    I’m curious, have you ever had a job? You don’t seem to have a clue of a clue of how the real world works.

    now his legacy, even the legitimacy of his re-election are tainted.

    In conservative wet dreams, sure. Once again, in the real world, not to much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 3

  9. Jenos Idanian says:

    Look, this is all settled. The woman who oversaw the “rogue” division was properly disciplined with six figures of bonuses and a promotion. What more do you want?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 9

  10. CB says:

    @JKB:

    For someone who’s new schitck is ‘bureaucracy is the embodiment of evil!’, you have a pretty cartoonish view of how bueracucracies work. Get a grip.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

  11. Caj says:

    Quite frankly I don’t see what all the fuss is about anyway! Hello! TEA stands for what? Those groups should have been looked into more closely as far as I’m concerned. It’s all much ado about nothing. Had all these groups been progressives or liberals etc you wouldn’t have heard a peep out of any Republican. They would have thought it was perfectly right for those groups to be looked at closely. They must be drowning in the valley of fake tears over this non issue!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5

  12. wr says:

    @Jenos Idanian: “What more do you want? ”

    For you to go away.

    I mean, as long as you’re asking…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  13. Caj says:

    It’s all much ado about nothing as far as I’m concerned. Of course the TEA party are political. It’s ludicrous for anyone to think otherwise! Had all those groups being checked out by the IRS been affliliated to left wing parties you would have never heard such an uproar from Republicans!! Citizens United opened the flood gates for all this nonsense but that was perfectly fine because it benefitted right wing causes!! Typical over reaction by a party that hates to lose anything. But right now they’re all losing their minds over crap!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  14. OldSouth says:

    Hmmm…seems to be that if the White House is as competent as they pride themselves on being, then there is the whiff of corruption in the air, a deliberate effort to turn the machinery of governance into a tool to reward friends and punish enemies.

    Or, if they aren’t corrupt, they’re just terribly incompetent, a gang that can’t shoot straight.

    Neither explanation is particularly comforting.

    You payz yer money, you takes yer choice…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 8

  15. Paul L. says:

    @anjin-san:

    The President has a rather full plate, behavior of low-level employees, good or bad, is not really part of his portfolio.

    But Lynndie England was George W. Bush’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s hand picked special operative in Abu Ghraib!!!1!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  16. rachel says:

    Republicans in Congress have known that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) asked additional questions of some tea party groups seeking tax exempt status since last July, only recently raising the issue as a matter of controversy according to documents released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

    The questionnaires were revealed after the IRS inspector general explained last week that agents in the Cincinnati office asked for more information of groups applying for tax exempt status if they had the words “tea party” and “patriot” in their title, apparently singling them out over liberal groups seeking similar classification.

    “We would be happy to provide a status update to the Subcommittee staff and provide a copy of our interim and final reports on the matter when they are issued,” IRS inspector general J. Russell George wrote (PDF) to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) last July, according to ABC News.

    Hmm…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  17. stonetools says:

    The problem for the conservatives who want to make this a scandal is that its not a politically useful scandal unless you can show White House involvement in wrong doing. Unfortunately, as this goes on, its becoming clearer that the WH knew nothing of this while the wrongdoing was happening. Can’t accuse the WH of wrongdoing when they didn’t know it was happening.
    Now you can try to make a case for incompetent oversight, but by law there’s no direct WH oversight of the IRS, so what’s left.
    This may end up being less of a scandal than BENGHAZI! At least in that event, there was direct WH involvement.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  18. anjin-san says:

    @ Paul L.

    But Lynndie England was George W. Bush’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s hand picked special operative in Abu Ghraib!!!1!

    No war over fictional WMD in Iraq, no Abu Ghraib. Bush and Rumsfeld chose to open Pandora’s Box (well, let’s be honest, Cheney chose to open it, and the others did as they were told) so, yea, I kind of hold them responsible for the whirlwind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

  19. Paul L. says:

    @rachel:
    Wow, Republicans were only outraged after the IRS IG report was released.
    Hmm… That excuses the IRS’s actions.
    Someone forget that the DOJ/White House/Democrats Fast and Furious excuse/talking point of “we can’t comment/ should wait until the IG report is released.”
    Maybe unlike Fast and Furious BATF, the IRS did not have any whistle blowers who informed Congress.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5

  20. JKB says:

    @anjin-san: The President has a rather full plate, behavior of low-level employees, good or bad, is not really part of his portfolio.

    I’m sorry but is the President not the head of the Executive branch? Is he not given a budget to hire managers and supervisors to oversee the various operations and ensure they are conducted in accordance with the law and policy? Is he not provided with the right to select the heads of the various departments? Is he not permitted a large staff to the coordinate policy with those departments? Can he not appoint special superempowered staff (czars) to coordinated the various government programs and ensure they are operating in accordance with policy?

    But ultimately, the head of the Executive Branch is responsible for its operation. He is not culpable for lower level actions taken without his knowledge. But when those actions are revealed, he has a responsibility to see that the matter is corrected. 99.99% of the functions and activities of government need not rise to his personal attention as lower level political and career supervisors correct the problems according to policy and practice. But when the chain of supervision fails, eventually it falls to the man or woman in charge, i.e., the President to see that it is corrected.

    It sucks being boss sometimes. A lot of the time things go along as they have. But on occasion things break and when the intervening supervisors can’t do the job, it rises to you to fix it. Oh, and you generally get yourself some new intervening supervisors so you don’t have to involve yourself in the minutiae they should be handling. Even if corrected, you still report up the chain with a “I discovered this… and took these actions to correct it.”

    So the question remains, why was Obama’s subordinates trying to keep him from learning about a bad act by the IRS?

    Perhaps taking adult responsibility for been given authority over is rare outside the military?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  21. anjin-san says:

    @ JKB

    Is he not provided with the right to select the heads of the various departments?

    I guess you missed the part where the head of the IRS was dismissed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  22. TheColourfield says:

    @JKB:

    Of course the head of the IRS at the time this apparently happened was appointed by W.

    Should Obama have fired him in 2008 when he was inaugurated ? I can only imagine the outcry if that had happened.

    Do you recommend a full turnover of all public servants after every election so that they be replaced by a Dem or Repub depending on the result of the election?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. Just Me says:

    This is one of those scandals that I am betting Obama didn’t ordered or even ask for and probably was unaware of it beyond the reports from the groups involved complaining a out the discrimination and being ignored.

    I don’t believe that this was a few rogue IRS employees either.

    This mostly screams of somebody at the managerial level creating the policy with the various workers doing what they were told. I would like to know who and I would like to see them fired and steps taken so that this kind of discrimination doesn’t happen again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  24. Todd says:

    @JKB:

    In the military, there are many things that our Squadron commander is ultimately responsible for, but doesn’t get told about right away. If he was involved in all the daily minutiae, he’d never have time to the big picture things that his job actually entails.

    The same concept is applicable to the Presidency … but on a scale orders of magnitude greater.

    If any President gets involved with making decisions about the management of low-level employees of any agency, that to me would be indication that he’s neglecting his own job.

    … in other words, exactly the opposite of what you’re advocating.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  25. JKB says:

    @Todd:

    And what happens when a couple airmen start doing things their own way, “against policy” and no one in the chain between the airmen and the squadron commander corrects the problem? What happens when what they are doing causes complaints to be lodged? What happens when the actions are such they are going to be reported in the newspaper and the IG is going to investigate?

    Trust me, anyone who wants a half decent fitness report makes sure the commander is briefed.

    You are speaking of when the problems are small and the supervisors take effective action and outside authorities aren’t looking into the problems. When it’s broke, things happen real differently and the commander is involved in the minutiae until he gets things running right again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. JKB says:

    @Just Me: I would like to know who and I would like to see them fired and steps taken so that this kind of discrimination doesn’t happen again.

    How untouchable would Obama be if he’d been the one to reveal the targeting and he then laid out who had been reassigned, that training had been initiated and what controls had been put in place to see it couldn’t happen again.

    Even at this post-election date, he’d stand tall in the public’s eyes.

    Instead, we get his statement that someone needs to be held accountable. Like he doesn’t know who the head of the Executive branch is. I guess they skipped that part of the Constitution at Harvard law. But oddly he didn’t pick it up when he taught the Constitutional law class either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. Kari Q says:

    @JKB:

    And what happens when a couple airmen start doing things their own way, “against policy” and no one in the chain between the airmen and the squadron commander corrects the problem? What happens when what they are doing causes complaints to be lodged? What happens when the actions are such they are going to be reported in the newspaper and the IG is going to investigate?

    In your world, apparently the result would be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be fired, since that is who is ultimately responsible. Or maybe the president would impeached as Commander in Chief. Yeah, come to think of it, you’d prefer that option.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. Kari Q says:

    As to the article itself, it seems to me that it’s a good thing that the White House is not informed of the details of an ongoing investigation into possible misconduct that could include illegal activity. That’s necessary to ensure that the investigators are free to pursue all relevant information without obstruction or conflict from the administration.

    In fact, I daresay that if the White House had been informed of the investigation all along, we’d be hearing screams from the right that this is evidence of tampering and interfering with pursuit of the truth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. JKB says:

    @Kari Q:

    You are so funny. So earnest in your willful ignorance.

    I’m sure if you try you can grasp the concepts of responsibility and authority. Authority can be delegated, but responsibility cannot. Does that make one culpable for the misdeeds of those under your authority? No. But it does make you responsible to correct the situation, to establish management controls to see they don’t happen again. Does that mean that you must do it all by your lonesome? No. It means you must select and empower individuals who will handle the details. But you are the responsible person. You must ensure that the matter is handled.

    @Kari Q:

    You mean the investigation where they briefed IRS management upon the start, brief the IRS and Treasury managers as well as provide the draft report for comment? That investigation? Have you ever endured an IG investigation?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  30. anjin-san says:

    @ JKB

    And what happens when a couple airmen start doing things their own way, “against policy” and no one in the chain between the airmen and the squadron commander corrects the problem?

    Sure, because a squadron and the United States government are pretty much the same thing. There are what, close to three million employees of the federal govt? If Obama does not know what each one is up to, it pretty much proves he is not up to snuff…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Kari Q says:

    @JKB:

    And you, sir, are so obsessed with attacking Obama that you have lost whatever sense you once had.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  32. pylon says:

    Meanwhile, in the alternate universe where Obama had be informed:

    JKB: How dare Obama interfere in an investigation?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0