It is never good for an administration when a front-page newspaper article about an ongoing controversy begins as follows: “The White House offered a new account Monday of how and when it learned . . . ” That’s what readers of The Post awoke to on Tuesday. In trying to contain the controversy and protect President Obama, White House officials have only added to questions about what happened.
Until this week, the story of how White House officials learned that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting conservative groups was fairly straightforward. White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was notified in late April that a Treasury Department inspector general’s audit of the IRS was nearing completion. The president, officials said, didn’t find out about any of it until May 10, when it became public.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Denis McDonough, President Obama's chief of staff, was among a handful of senior aides informed of the Treasury inspector general's findings that the IRS was targeting conservative groups for heightened scrutiny in their tax-exempt application process.
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The implication was that Ruemmler was told in general terms about the report and that the information was kept within her office. But over the past few days, officials have offered a more detailed description of what really happened. Ruemmler was informed that political targeting had taken place and shared that information with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and some others on the senior staff. And there were subsequent discussions between White House and Treasury officials about the report.
But no one shared any of this information with the president. Why? White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday that Ruemmler had recommended not doing so. “In these situations,” he said, “the counsel made the decision that this is not the kind of thing that you notify the president of, of an investigation that’s not complete, because it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so.”
Some lawyers agree with that position. But is that the way a White House should work? Most previous administrations had an unwritten rule: the doctrine of no surprises. The president should not be kept in the dark about impending problems, particularly ones that are potentially explosive politically.
At a minimum, according to some officials who served in past administrations, someone, presumably the chief of staff, would give the president a quiet heads-up about something as charged as political malfeasance at the IRS. Not because the president could or should do anything to interfere with the investigation, but as a warning to be prepared. And to be able to answer the question of what the president knew and when.
Why would it be inappropriate for the president to know what his chief of staff, his counsel and others on his senior staff knew and were talking about with others in the government? Would telling him require him to do something inappropriate? Would he be open to criticism if he knew and stood idly by? Perhaps, but if his top advisers knew weren’t inclined to act inappropriately, why would the president?
There are still many unknowns about internal White House transactions over the past three weeks. No one has said just how explicit Ruemmler was with McDonough or others about the nature of what she was told. Did she play down the implications of the report to the point that others did not regard it as a potential problem? Maybe it didn’t seem worrisome enough to tell the president. And, had he been told, would he have responded more quickly when the news broke, rather than waiting three days to express his disapproval?