Most nothing-burger faux scandals merely fade away, but sometimes they reach a definitive end. So it is with the IRS “scandal” from a few years back, in which Republicans claimed that President Barack Obama had used the agency as a weapon against his political opponents, particularly local tea party groups. So terrified was Obama of the East Flipsburg Tea Party Patriots and their ilk that he supposedly undertook a Nixonian plot to crush them under the merciless boot of the federal government.
The charges were ludicrous from the beginning, but a new report on the IRS matter serves as a potent reminder of what we recently left behind and where we are today. To put it simply, the Obama administration may have been the least corrupt administration in recent history, despite eight years of Republican screeching about a series of non-scandals. In reaction, those same Republicans gave us what is already without doubt the most corrupt administration in recent history.
A federal watchdog has identified scores of cases in which the Internal Revenue Service may have targeted liberal-leaning groups for extra scrutiny based on their names or political leanings, a finding that could undermine claims that conservatives were unfairly targeted under President Barack Obama…
For instance, IRS personnel were told starting in 2010 to watch out for groups that had affiliations with ACORN, a national network of community-based organizations that had collapsed amid allegations of wrongdoing by conservative activists. Ultimately, at least 13 applications for tax exemptions were flagged for scrutiny based on possible ACORN ties, and most of those groups waited over a year for their cases to be resolved, the report said — mirroring many of the allegations leveled regarding conservative groups.
I’ll summarize this as briefly as possible. When the story broke in 2013, we were told that in reviewing applications for organizations to receive charitable nonprofit status, IRS personnel had subjected certain groups to extra scrutiny to make sure they were actually charities and not political groups in disguise. Among other things, they searched through applications with words like “Tea Party” in their names. The result was that some of these applications took longer to process than they normally would.
Upon hearing the news, Republicans positively exploded in feigned outrage, saying that this proved that Obama was viciously and illegally targeting his opponents for the cruelest oppression. It was the subject of zillions of segments on Fox News and talk radio, protests outside IRS offices and multiple congressional investigations. “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate,” wrote Peggy Noonan.
Now here’s what actually happened. After the Supreme Court loosened campaign finance rules in the 2010 Citizens United case, the IRS was inundated with applications from new groups seeking tax-exempt charitable status, even though they were obviously political groups devoted to electing their preferred candidates (on both the right and the left). The law on what distinguishes a political group from a charitable group is notoriously vague, and the overwhelmed employees cast about to figure out how to sort through their growing piles of applications. In doing so, they ended up picking out both liberal and conservative groups for extra scrutiny. There were no orders from the White House to punish conservatives and no conspiracy to silence anyone or shut down tea partyers. The charges Republicans made were utterly bogus.
And here’s the broader context: The same was true of pretty much everything that Republicans tried to turn into a scandal during the Obama presidency. Every time a story would emerge of bureaucratic bumbling or questionable behavior — which happens in every presidency — they would cry, “Now we’ve got him! This shows the rot at the heart of the administration!” They would unleash a thousand subpoenas and hearings and fist-shaking speeches, and the result would be … nothing.
Or at least not much of anything: no sinister orders from the White House, no criminal malfeasance, no far-reaching conspiracy. Solyndra was a government loan to encourage a nascent industry that didn’t pan out (in contrast to the many such loans that did). “Fast and Furious” was a mid-level screw-up that started in the George W. Bush administration. And Benghazi — in response to which Republicans mounted no fewer than eight separate congressional investigations — was a tragedy in which four people died, not a scandal. Now that Hillary Clinton is no longer a political threat, Republicans have ceased pretending they ever cared about Benghazi at all (there’s a trial going on right now in federal court of a man accused of orchestrating the attack; you probably haven’t heard about it).
In fact, not only was there a notable dearth of small scandals during the Obama years; he was the first president in decades to go through two full terms without a major scandal. Bush had the Iraq War lies, Clinton had Monica Lewinsky, Reagan had Iran-Contra, Nixon had Watergate — all scandals in which the president himself was directly implicated in wrongdoing. Nothing of the sort touched Barack Obama.
And it was not for lack of Republicans trying. For six of his eight years, they had subpoena power and the firm conviction that if they just looked hard enough they’d expose to everyone what a fraud he was — a foreigner, a criminal, the leader of a malevolent scheme to destroy America from within. And they couldn’t do it.
So they rallied around Donald Trump, a figure of uncommon corruption even before he ran for president. Someone who continually lied about his real estate holdings, who ran pyramid schemes and other blatant scams on unsuspecting marks (he eventually had to pay $25 million to the victims of Trump University), who had decades of connections to both Russian and American mobsters, who engineered business bankruptcies that left his creditors holding the bag while he slithered away unharmed, who had a habit of stiffing contractors, who ran a skeevy modeling agencyfull of exploited foreign models, who had been fined for allegedly violating anti-trust laws, who had a history of employing and underpaying undocumented workers. This was their champion, by almost any measure the most corrupt individual ever elected to the White House.
So was anyone surprised that once he took office, Trump monetized the presidency, refused to give up his holdings, hid his tax returns, hired his family members and fostered an atmosphere in which half his appointees seem to think it’s no problem to use taxpayer money to charter luxurious private planes for their travel? Of course not. No one is surprised.
So the next time a Democratic president is elected and Republicans once again start braying about how corrupt he or she is and how there are shocking scandals waiting to be discovered if only we turn over enough rocks, let’s not forget this history.