When a White House aide says something isn’t “relevant” you can bet it actually is, and there is no good explanation for it. So it was with White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, who got hammered again and again on the Sunday shows. Where was the president the night of Benghazi? Not relevant. What about actual lawbreaking at the IRS? Not relevant. (He later tweeted a clarification — never a good sign — that targeting conservatives was still wrong. But of course if it is illegal, then much more serious action, including civil and criminal liability, is at issue.)
This line of argument is untenable and, frankly, embarrassing. If the Obama flacks don’t have answers or won’t give them, then they should not send Pfeiffer out to instruct newspeople on what is and isn’t relevant. And if you want to talk about relevance it’s probably a good idea to stop throwing out red herrings (e.g. George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Republicans). There was something especially childish and ham-handed in the sort of defense Pfeiffer mounted when the question of the day is whether the president is either malicious or totally out to lunch. His defense personifies the very arrogance that leads the White House to overreach in the first place.
The White House’s non-answers drew incredulous responses from hosts Bob Schieffer, Chris Wallace and George Stephanopoulos (“You don’t really mean the law is irrelevant, do you?”).
Republicans including Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Reps. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) played it smart, refusing to accuse the administration of lawbreaking and instead insisting that a full investigation by someone other than the administration’s own employees needs to be undertaken in all these scandals. At this stage it is more than sufficient that Republicans explain to Americans what the scandals are all about, as Price did on ABC’s “This Week”:
PRICE: Yeah, a good attempt to change the subject. The fact of the matter is this is about trust. And Sarah Hall Ingram, who was in charge of the tax-exempt division at the IRS between 2009 and 2012, the exact time of this challenge and affront to the American people, is now in charge of instituting and regulating and determining whether or not the IRS is doing the appropriate things as it relates to the ACA, the president’s health-care law.
Remember, the IRS is the enforcement arm for the president’s health-care law?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think she has to go?
PRICE: I think she at least has to step back until we get to the bottom of this.
So far, the administration isn’t fooling anyone. Most high-profile mainstream journalists now concede that both the underlying scandals and the defense are problematic. (Ron Fournier: “The problem with this scandal, and it actually relates to the other ones that we’ll talk about later, is when you’re in a position of government and saying, ‘We’re not corrupt, we’re just incompetent,’ that’s a bad place to be. . . What unites all these things is it undermines the credibility of the administration and the president in a competence of government.”)
Democrats on oversight committees who were willing to carry some water for the White House on Benghazi appear entirely unwilling to do so both on the IRS scandal (in which Congress was arguably misled) and the Associated Press (which strikes at liberals’ media allies).
Pfeiffer’s outing, if nothing else, suggests that the White House is entirely tone deaf, is unaware that its excuses sound as bad as the offenses and is unable to conceal its desperation in trying to paint this as all the GOP’s fault.
A president actually in command of his administration would bring in a new chief of staff and new communications personnel, and figure out how to at least appear interested in getting to the bottom of these issues. It is the only way to allow himself a sliver of a chance to keep moving forward on his agenda. But then again, his agenda may be irrelevant at this point.