Stephanopoulos replied, “You don’t really mean the law is irrelevant, do you?”
Pfeiffer responded: “What I mean is, whether it’s legal or illegal is not important to the fact that the conduct doesn’t matter. The Department of Justice has said that they’re looking into the legality of this. The president is not going to wait for that. We have to make sure it does not happen again, regardless of how that turns out.”
At issue is the recent revelation that the Internal Revenue Service singled out for extra scrutiny some conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status. The Justice Department announced last week that it had opened a criminal investigation.
A senior White House official said Sunday evening that the White House counsel’s office had been aware since mid-April that the IRS watchdog was likely to report that agency officials had inappropriately screened groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their names that were seeking tax-exempt status.
The Treasury inspector general for tax administration told the White House counsel’s office that it “was completing a report finding that line IRS employees had improperly scrutinized certain 501(c)(4) organizations by using words like ‘tea party’ and ‘patriot,’ ” the White House official said. White House staff members were told that the report had not been finalized and that the publication date had not been set, but that it probably would come soon.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week that the IRS inspector general informed the White House counsel’s office in April that it was reviewing matters involving the Cincinnati IRS office. The White House has said President Obama did not learn of it until he saw news reports this month.
Top Treasury Department tax watchdog J. Russell George told the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday that he informed Treasury’s general counsel last June and Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin “shortly thereafter” about problems related to the special attention the agency was paying some conservative organizations. Pfeiffer said it was his understanding that Wolin did not inform the White House.
Obama demanded and received the resignation last week of the IRS acting commissioner, Steven T. Miller, and appointed budget official Daniel Werfel as his replacement. Pfeiffer said Sunday that Werfel will conduct a 30-day “top-down review” at the agency “to see that anyone who did anything wrong is going to be held accountable.”
Republicans continued to assail the Obama administration Sunday over the scandal. Pfeiffer countered on NBC’s “Meet the Press” by accusing Republicans of “looking to make political hay.”
“There is a culture of intimidation throughout the administration. The IRS is just the most recent example,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on “Meet the Press.”
“I can’t believe one rogue agent started it, because it seems too widespread,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Pfeiffer promised that the White House would work with Congress, which also is investigating the IRS, but warned: “What we’re not going to participate in is partisan fishing expeditions designed to distract from the real issues at hand.”
Pfeiffer appeared on all five Sunday news talk shows, after a week in which the White House was put on the defensive by the IRS scandal, questions about the administration’s response to last year’s deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s decision to secretly obtain the phone records of Associated Press journalists.
Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.
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