The claim that the White House was ‘aware’ of the IRS behavior
“Here`s one of the problems that we`ve had, Bob, is you have the Benghazi scandal. You have the criminalization of the reporter at Fox News, and the AP dragnet, and you have IRS that clearly showed some criminal behavior that at least we know was back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And that pattern of deception when this broke made it almost impossible for those of us who know this program, worked on this program, to make sure there were no laws broken on this program, it made it very, very difficult to explain the difference to the American people.”
— Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), during an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” June 16, 2013
Rogers, who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been a defender of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. But in trying to separate that issue from other recent controversies, he made a sweeping claim about the Internal Revenue Service scandal, in which agents targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status: “You have IRS that clearly showed some criminal behavior that at least we know was back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
The Justice Department has launched a criminal probe, but at first glance, it sounds like Rogers is asserting criminal behavior took place at the White House. Kelsey Knight, a Rogers spokesman, said his language got a bit tangled there, and he simply saying the IRS was a criminal matter and that the White House was aware of the abuses there.
Indeed, later in the interview, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer questions whether Rogers is asserting criminal behavior took place at the White House: “Are you connecting that to the White House? Have you found a connection there yet?”
Rogers answers: “No. What I`m saying is the White House themselves have admitted that people in the White House knew about this behavior, and I think that investigation is still ongoing.” He added: “It`s clearly gotten to the front steps.”
Let’s dig a little deeper.
The White House initially had some trouble coming up with a timeline for its understanding of the scope of the problem at the IRS. Initially, the White House said that officials did not know the results of an Inspector General inquiry until shortly before it was released. But then the White House said that a member of White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler’s staff learned of the report the week of April 16, and then Ruemmler told White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other top officials about the IRS findings, though not President Obama.
The IRS scandal became public on May 10, when an official apologized for the targeting of conservative groups. So, essentially, we are talking about a three-week period when White House officials knew of the forthcoming report. (IG reports are always subject to change before release, which is one reason why the White House said Obama was not informed.)
But there is no evidence the White House tried to suppress the report—or that officials even prepared a PR strategy for dealing with the revelations.
Knight said that Rogers, in making his comments, was referring to Ruemmler and McDonough learning of the IG report.
“We still do not know what the White House knew because we are waiting for the full results of the investigation,” she said. “IRS has not been forthcoming with information and has not been cooperating with Congress, which is why it’s taking so long.”
Congressional investigators have been interviewing IRS workers and officials, but thus far have not turned up any White House connection.
“An Internal Revenue Service supervisor in Washington says she was personally involved in scrutinizing some of the earliest applications from tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status, including some requests that languished for more than a year without action… [but] provided no evidence that senior IRS officials ordered agents to target conservative groups or that anyone in the Obama administration outside the IRS was involved.” the Associated Press reported this week.
An IRS manager in Cincinnati—a self-described “conservative Republican” — has told investigators that he had asked Washington for guidance on the initial tea-party case in early 2010 and that an IRS screener in his office developed the criteria to identify groups for scrutiny.
Knight emphasized that Rogers was “not saying the White House was involved in anything criminal.”
The Pinocchio Test
We appreciate that Rogers was appearing on television with a particular message: Don’t confuse the NSA surveillance program with other controversies surrounding the White House. And we can understand that a person’s language can sometimes get tangled while appearing on live television.
But Rogers appears to want to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he says the White House has not been involved in criminal behavior. But on the other hand, he asserts the White House was “aware of the program” — that “it’s clearly gotten to the front steps” — when that claim is merely based on the fact that the White House was given a three-week heads-up about a forthcoming report.
Moreover, he made some version of this claim not once, but four times.
We have a “reasonable person” standard here. Rogers’ language would have left most listeners believing that White House was aware of potentially criminal behavior as it took place. So far, there is no evidence to back up such claims.
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