WASHINGTON — Juggling three big problems — with the IRS scandal sparking scorching bipartisan criticism — President Barack Obama and his team Wednesday scrambled to contain the damage.
The acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, Steven Miller, was forced out over the targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Of the three crises — the IRS targeting, the Justice Department snooping on Associated Press reporters phone calls and the long running debate over what happened before and after the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, with four U.S. diplomats killed — the IRS debacle is the most threatening to Obama.
That’s because everybody hates the IRS — the lone government agency without a constitutiency. The IRS scandal created rare bipartisan unity. Democrats and Republicans in Congress united against an agency with no defenders.
Miller knew — and did not reveal to Congress that he knew — about the IRS demanding an abundance of information from conservative groups in 2012.
In a brief statement Wednesday from the East Room, Obama said the IRS conduct was “inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives.
“And as I said earlier, it should not matter what political stripe you’re from — the fact of the matter is, is that the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity. The government generally has to conduct itself in a way that is true to the public trust. That’s especially true for the IRS.”
With Miller gone, the IRS scandal will not disappear because of hearings in the House and Senate over the coming days with IRS officials expected to testify: Friday at Ways and Means; Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee; and, on Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), who is on the Ways and Means panel, said the Miller resignation was not enough. “In fact, this should not be the only IRS resignation announced this week as we continue to learn that the scope of involvement is much wider than first reported by IRS officials last week. What was done was not only inappropriate, but it was illegal, and those responsible must pay a criminal price for their actions,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, while Obama personally went on camera to confront the IRS scandal — with more from Obama expected Thursday at a White House press conference –the White House disclosed emails between staffers in the White House, State Department and CIA over talking points to describe what happened in Benghazi.
The White House usually does not disclose internal communications unless it is in their messaging interests. The email move came after Republicans used portions of emails that had surfaced to continue to make the argument that, after the attacks, the White House tried to craft talking points for political purposes.
Many of the email exchanges had to do with establishing a base set of facts — but they did disclose much worry about how some wording could leave the Obama team exposed to criticism.
While the White House portrayed the emails as earnest works in progress, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that the “seemingly political nature of the State Department’s concerns raises questions about the motivations behind these changes and who at the State Department was seeking them.”
And on another front, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the House Judiciary Committee — chaired by Holder critic Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), where he said he was not to blame for the AP spying.
“In fact, the head of the RNC called for my resignation in spite of the fact that I was not the person who was involved in that decision,” Holder said of the call by the Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus.
“But be that as it may, I was recused in that matter. As I described, I guess, in a press conference that I held yesterday, the decision to issue this subpoena was made by the people who are presently involved in the case. The matter is being supervised by the deputy attorney general. I am not familiar with the reasons why the case — why the subpoena was constructed in the way that it was because I’m simply not a part of the — of the case.”
The public may not care much about reporters or how many times the Benghazi talking points were revised. But everyone deals with the IRS — which is why this scandal won’t go away soon for the Obama White House.