But they agreed that it would be best not to share it with President Obama until the independent audit was completed and made public, in part to protect him from even the appearance of trying to influence an investigation.
This account of how the White House tried to deal with the IRS inquiry — based on documents, public statements and interviews with multiple senior officials, including one directly involved in the discussions — shows how carefully Obama’s top aides were trying to shield him from any second-term scandal that might swamp his agenda or, worse, jeopardize his presidency.
The episode also offers a glimpse into the workings of Obama’s insular West Wing, which has struggled to cope in recent weeks with the IRS scandal, the continued fallout from last year’s deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s tracking of journalists as part of leak investigations.
But Ruemmler and McDonough’s careful plan for the IRS was upended on May 10, when Lois Lerner, a senior official at the agency, broke the news by admitting that the IRS had given extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Senior White House officials were stunned to see the IRS trying to get ahead of its own story — and in doing so, creating a monstrous communications disaster for an administration that appeared not to know what its agencies were up to.
Ruemmler views her mission strictly as advising Obama on the law and protecting executive branch prerogatives, colleagues and friends said. “She’s a lawyer’s lawyer,” said Neal Katyal, acting solicitor general in Obama’s first term and a close friend. “She can go with you toe to toe on footnotes and Supreme Court opinions or she can get into the intricacies of protecting the president against a Capitol Hill investigation.”
Yet Ruemmler’s lawyerly focus sometimes conflicts with political imperatives. The absence of such dominant first-term personalities as former adviser David Axelrod and former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who could bridge those differences, has left the White House scrambling to contain its public damage.
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?