Republicans are working overtime to connect the IRS scandal to President Obama. Theoretically, this task should be made more difficult by the lack of evidence of any such connection. In practice, it’s not dissuading Republicans in the slightest from drawing that link. John Boehner claims it is “inconceivable” that Obama didn’t know about the IRS targeting of conservative groups.
In that context, don’t miss today’s big Post piece documenting the behind-the-scenes moves by the Obama administration as it dealt with the news of the impending inspector general’s audit. The piece reports that White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, having learned of the pending audit’s damaging details, shared the news with chief of staff Denis McDonough and other White House aides. They all decided not to tell the president about the audit until it was completed and publicly released, “in part to protect him from even the appearance of trying to influence an investigation.” And it turns out that this is exactly what they should have done:
In the IRS case, many prominent Washington lawyers say Ruemmler made the sensible legal call. She protected her client — Obama — by distancing him from a politically sensitive problem and ensuring that he could not be accused of meddling in an inquiry.
In addition, one senior administration official said, Ruemmler at the time did not know key facts: How extensive was the IRS’s targeting? How many and which employees were involved? Did they target only conservative groups and was the effort politically motivated? And were those groups’ applications for tax-exempt status denied or delayed?
To keep from intervening in the audit, Ruemmler could not seek answers, the official said.
“The single most important thing the White House counsel can do at that point is make sure no one in the White House does anything to interfere with or anything that may obstruct the conclusions from being finished and rolled out,” said Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel under Bill Clinton.
All of this is painfully obvious, and yet normally savvy Beltway observers continue to pretend not to know it. Instead, the general thrust of the coverage has been to seize on every little micro-revelation about the timing of when the White House found out about the IG report to build a vague narrative about the White House being “on the defensive.” Once that narrative has been established, there is no longer any need to level with readers about the actual significance of each new revelation.
To be clear: Maybe the White House is mishandling the “optics” of the IRS story, and maybe it could have been clearer about the various timelines. Those are obviously legit topics. But they shouldn’t preclude genuine efforts to sort out exactly how meaningful each little detail of timing really is. Also: One can demand an end to the hyping of trivial details of timing while also demanding a full accounting of what actually happened with the targeting of conservatives, as well as accountability for any wrongdoers, both of which we absolutely must have. We can keep both those ideas in our heads at the same time.
* GOP CONTORTIONS REACHING COMIC PROPORTIONS: The GOP efforts to deal with the inability to connect the scandal to Obama have led to things like this, from Sarah Palin: “For the president to deny any knowledge of what was brewing and to claim to know nothing about the Benghazi cover-up or anything about anything White House-related lately, he’s either a liar or a hugely incompetent CEO. You decide.” As Steve Benen puts it:
The right started by arguing, “Why did Obama intervene in the IRS’s activities?” This shifted recently to, “Why didn’t Obama intervene in the IRS’s activities?” And Palin is shifting it again, effectively asking, “Why didn’t Obama know more about the IRS’s activities?”
All of this is an outgrowth of the inability to decide whether the scandals show Obama as a power-mad Nixonian figure manipulating the levers of overbearing, intrusive government to realize sinister ends, or a weak bystander unable to control a government run amok.
* OBAMA TO DELIVER MAJOR SPEECH ON DRONES: Per the New York Times, the news in the Presidents’ big speech today: He will set forth a legal rationale for drone strikes that limits them to targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans,” according to a letter Eric Holder sent to Congress. That would end strikes on those simply presumed to be members of Al Qaeda or some other terror group. This is the core point:
In his speech, Mr. Obama is expected to reject the notion of a perpetual war with terrorists, envisioning a day when Al Qaeda has been so incapacitated that wartime authority will end. However, because he is also institutionalizing procedures for drone strikes, it does not appear that he thinks that day has come.
In other words, Obama will seek to strike a balance by claiming that at some point, the notion of a global battlefield will no longer be operative, but continue to claim authority (albeit more limited and defined) to continue with strikes.
* CIVIL LIBERTARIANS WILL LIKELY NOT BE CONVINCED: From the above link, reactions like this will likely typify the civil liberties community’s take on the speech:
“The Obama administration continues to claim authority to kill virtually anyone anywhere in the world under the ‘global battlefield’ legal theory and a radical redefinition of the concept of imminence,” said Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International. “President Obama should reject these concepts in his speech tomorrow and commit to upholding human rights, not just in word but in deed.”
One key thing to look for is whether Obama directly defends or defines this concept, in legal terms, or whether he tries to temper or move away from it.
* OBAMA TO TAKE STEPS ON GUANTANAMO DETAINEES: The Times piece also has this:
Officials said they would make a fresh push to transfer detainees to home countries and lift the ban on sending some back to Yemen. The president plans to reappoint a high-level State Department official to oversee the effort to reduce the prison population.
These are steps Obama can take without Congress. What is also required — and Obama may pledge this in his speech today — is a renewed, sustained push for Congress to agree to close the facility.
* COULD GUNS BE WEDGE ISSUE IN 2014? The Fix crew says it just might, citing a new Post poll showing the following:
Thirty five percent of registered voters say they could not support a candidate who voted against expanding background checks at gun shows and on the Internet — even if they agreed with him or her on other issues. By comparison, 14 percent of voters would rule out a candidate who voted for expanded checks.
Strikingly, these results are almost the same in states where Senators have good NRA ratings, again confirming one of the basic dynamics that has bedeviled the gun debate: Even in red states, lawmakers may be overestimating the conservatism of their constituents when it comes to guns.
* DEMS HOLD SOLID LEAD IN CONGRESSIONAL BALLOT MATCHUP: The Post poll also finds that Democrats hold an eight point lead in the generic Congressional ballot matchup, 48-40. This would seem to undercut the claim that the current ongoing “scandals” are damaging Dems in the context of the coming 2014 elections, though it is certainly early days when it comes to scandal season.
Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, who closely tracks House races, has said Dems would need to win 55 percent of the popular vote in House races to take back the lower chamber.
* BROAD SUPPORT FOR LEGALIZATION, BUT NOT AMONG REPUBLICANS: And the Post poll also finds that 58 percent support giving undocumented immigrants legal status if they meet certain conditions, though the wording does not specifically ask whether respondents favor a path to citizenship. This is supported by 57 percent of independents, and 61 percent of moderates. But it’s opposed by 52 percent of Republicans — which again shows how hard it will be for Republican officials to cross the citizenship Rubicon.
* AND JOHN MCCAIN TRIES TO TALK SENSE INTO GOP: Roll Call reports that John McCain has taken on an interesting task: He’s patiently explaining to his GOP colleagues that if they continue to filibuster everything in site, and refuse to even try to compromise with Democrats, they will have no choice but to revisit the “nuclear option.” Not surprisingly, the Tea Partyers are unmoved.