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White House Response To IRS Scandal Making The Situation Worse

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WASHINGTON -- So far, voters don't seem to be abandoning President Barack Obama over controversies gripping the Beltway world. But White House aides are tempting fate with their reluctant, piecemeal and contradictory disclosures of what they knew and when they knew it, especially about a report on the Internal Revenue Service's 18-month effort to target tea party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

The aides either have forgetten or are unable to implement the basic lesson of scandal control in Washington: Get the full story out -- all of it -- as fast as you can before your critics accuse you of a cover-up or worse.

It's been only a week since the president told the world that he had learned about the "outrageous" actions of the IRS' Cincinnati office from "news reports" on May 10. We now know that those reports stemmed from a disclosure the administration had planned and that, in fact, "senior officials" in the White House knew the essence of a damning inspector general's report on the matter as early as April 24.

From the start, the White House's response on this potentially explosive matter has been grudging at best and, in retrospect, ignorant or arrogant or both.

Last Tuesday, I asked White House press secretary Jay Carney about a passing reference he had made the day before in his briefing: that the White House Counsel's Office had been informed about the impending report "several weeks ago."

How did that square, I wanted to know, with the president's own statement that he hadn't learned about the matter until May 10? And what did the counsel's office learn in April? Weren't those explosive matters worth being passed on to higher-ups?

"What you are quoting is the president's description of his reaction to news reports," Carney answered in an email, "not the notification of the WHCO [White House Counsel's Office]. As the president said, he first learned about the situation from news reports. So did I.

"Previously, in the week of April 22, the WHCO was notified, as is common, about the fact that an IG was reviewing actions of IRS personnel, and that the IG report would soon be completed and made public. The content of that notification was very limited."

In a later response, Carney told me, "WHCO was not told what the IG's findings would be."

That was last Tuesday. And now we know from Carney himself on Monday that the White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, not only knew the gist of the damning report, but informed top staff at the White House about it -- though apparently not Carney, who was put in the position, apparently through no fault of his own, of telling the wrong story to the press corps.

Carney wasn't the only one peddling the wrong story -- one that easily and instantly could have been corrected by Ruemmler herself or, perhaps, others in the White House Counsel's Office who might have been working on the matter of the IG report.

Instead, another top White House aide gave me the same song and dance last week after Carney did.

"Since we deal with a bunch of IG reports all the time," this top aide told me, "I wouldn't be so skeptical about a notification involving a general subject matter and limited information. There are hundreds of IG audits/investigations going on every day."

He went on to say that the IG report wasn't final when the counsel's office first heard about it, so the conclusions weren't final and, therefore, there was no reason to inform White House higher-ups.

But we now know that senior staffers were told.

We still don't know the details of how the special scrutiny of conservative groups began in 2010, who approved it, or who first learned about it higher up at the IRS and the Treasury Department. The White House says that it knew nothing about the matter until the counsel received a heads up about the pending IG report.

And yet tea party and other conservative groups had been complaining about the IRS scrutiny since 2010, and IRS officials had publicly reassured members of Congress that there was nothing unusual or unwarranted going on.

With two winning presidential campaigns built on successful grassroots fundraising, with a former White House counsel (in 2010-11) who is one of the Democrats' leading experts on campaign law (Bob Bauer), with former top campaign officials having been ensconced as staffers in the White House (David Axelrod, who left for the reelection campaign in early 2011, and Dan Pfeiffer among others), it's hard to imagine that the Obama inner circle was oblivious to the issue of what the IRS was doing in Cincinnati.

That may well be true. Maybe they didn't care one whit what the IG was going to say. But they sure haven't been behaving that way in the last week.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified David Axelrod as a current, rather than former, White House staffer.

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