All of this is part of a strategy to protect the president — and to show that when he found out what happened, he acted as quickly as he could to deal with it. He sought the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner, replaced him with someone trusted by Republicans and Democrats, and ordered a 30-day assessment of the IRS, which has the benefit of giving everyone breathing room as congressional hearings continue.
What isn’t irrelevant is that the White House has added to the confusion by changing its story of who knew what and when. By happenstance or design, officials are employing an approach that former White House press secretary Mike McCurry once classically described as “telling the truth slowly.”
McCurry meant that as a way to say that sometimes White House officials know only part of the story — in that case it was the Monica Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton’s presidency — and must take care not say any more than they know at the time.
None of the focus on the changing White House accounts should detract from the bigger outrage, which is the actions of the IRS officials who targeted the conservative groups. But what has happened this week highlights that in trying to contain the controversy and shield the president, White House officials have left themselves open to more criticism.
Another question is now being asked by officials from past administrations: Why were Treasury officials not more proactive in pursuing tea party groups’ complaints that they were being harassed by the IRS? Why didn’t anyone in the White House raise questions about whether these accusations were real?
The IRS is a quasi-independent agency. It resides within the Treasury Department, but since the news of the controversy broke, White House officials have treated it as though it were off limits. It’s obviously improper for a White House to order the IRS to go after opponents, as former president Richard Nixon did. But is it improper to exercise oversight?
Administration officials no doubt take some comfort in the fact that the president’s approval ratings are holding steady in the face of this and other controversies.
Also, the devastation from the tornado that hit near Oklahoma City on Monday helps to keep everything in perspective.
But if White House officials hoped the IRS controversy would quickly go away, they have acted in a way designed to produce just the opposite.