June 12, 2013

So far, the House Oversight Committee’s investigation of the Internal Revenue Service and its targeting of Tea Party groups has yielded no evidence that the White House was involved. The original story — that this was the work of a few employees struggling to handle a growing workload — remains intact, and the available information we have throws water on the idea they were motivated by partisanship. The IRS agent who initiated the flagging, for example, was a Republican. And several of the groups denied tax exempt status were — as the New York Times reported recently — ineligible, given their partisan activities.

These facts, however, have not stopped congressional Republicans from insinuating a broader conspiracy. Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan — chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — declared this morning that the IRS’s singling out of conservative groups “didn’t originate in Cincinnati.” And while he also says that “we’re not anywhere near being able to jump to conclusions,” it seems he already has — if the directive didn’t come from the Cincinnati office, then it must have come from Washington. And if it came from Washington, then that implies a much larger scandal than what we’ve seen so far.

In fact, if Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s rhetoric is any indication, Republicans do believe that the White House was involved in the IRS’ decision to target conservative groups. In an interview on CNN last he week, he provided snippets from a transcript that seemed to show an IRS official conceding that the Cincinnati office had received direct guidance from Washington on targeting. Since then, as Greg noted earlier this morning, Issa has been pressed to release a full transcript of that interview, in order to confirm that quote. He has refused:

One week after he released partial transcripts of interviews with IRS officials involved in the scandal surrounding the targeting of conservative groups, the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said releasing the full transcripts would be “reckless” and “irresponsible.”

Issa’s argument is that releasing the transcripts may intimidate potential whistleblowers and hamper the committee as it pursued a full and comprehensive investigation. That’s certainly possible, but given Issa’s rapid shift — and his penchant for accusing the administration of broad dishonest and corruption — it seems more likely that there’s far less to those transcripts than what he’s implied. Indeed, here’s Elijah Cummings — the ranking Democrat on the committee — responding to Issa’s obstinance:

I fully support responsible oversight, but cherry picking transcript excerpts to fuel partisan and unsubstantiated claims is not a credible or effective way to investigate.”

It’s obvious that Republicans want President Obama to be involved in the IRS scandal, so that they can use “corruption” and “intimidation” as rallying cries in the 2014 elections. And if Issa’s actions are any indication, they will keep trying to find ways to create that perception, even if the evidence is lacking.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.