President Obama speaks during a press conference. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency/EPA)

The White House is perpetrating the notion that it had no knowledge of the Internal Revenue Service scandal or the investigation thereof nor did it know its Justice Department was citing James Rosen as a criminal to grab his phone records. As to the IRS scandal, I find it hard to believe that the White House wasn’t aware of ongoing letters of complaint to conservatives and the news coverage thereof. We would have to believe no one in the White House until the last few months was reading or watching coverage, monitoring Congress, or talking to Treasury or the IRS itself. That is the job of the chief executive — to run the government and enforce the laws.

But let’s take the White House at its word (something virtually no one does anymore). In that case the IRS is a rogue agency that conducted an internal investigation a year ago, found wrongdoing, sat on it and conducted another investigation, all the while representing to Congress that there was no wrongdoing. The failure to supervise a large and powerful agency is not an excuse; it is an indictment of a president willing to turn a blind eye toward claims of abuse by his political opponents.

Moreover, by failing to instruct every employee to cooperate, he is as responsible as anyone for the pathetic performance of Lois Lerner yesterday. When employees understand that they cannot simultaneously take the Fifth for fear of being criminally prosecuted and continue working in the executive branch to enforce the law, Congress tends to get more cooperation, as it did in the Valerie Plame incident and other previous executive branch investigations.

Then we move to the Justice Department. Again, the president cannot excuse lawlessness in a major department by saying he doesn’t supervise it. He appointed Eric Holder attorney general, he sets policy, and he presides over unprecedented prosecutions against leakers. It doesn’t get him off the hook to say that he was not the one to dream up the idea of labeling Rosen a criminal to get his phone records; his reckless neglect to ensure the Justice Department follows the law and its own internal guidelines goes to his abject failure to perform his job.

And as for that affidavit, who is going to look at whether the ginned-up accusations of law-breaking (and fear of flight!) fit the definition of perjury (intentional, material misrepresentation)? Who is going to investigate whether Holder recused himself, as he claimed under oath? The Justice Department sure can’t. For that part of the scandal fest, at least, I am persuaded that an independent prosecutor is needed.

It is alarming to think that the government lawyers are apparently running the government, making new law (e.g. journalism is criminal) and shielding the president from knowledge of important matters so he later can’t be accused of wrongdoing. The notion expressed on behalf of the White House counsel that the president should be walled off from controversy sounds like the advice of a personal lawyer worried about his own liability, not a lawyer employed by the American people to ensure, among other things, that the laws are faithfully executed. (It also defies the first rule of any executive: No surprises. One can’t imagine a chief executive, the secretary of Treasury or any other boss saying, “Please let me be surprised about a huge controversy by the reading about it in the newspapers!”)

It is frightful to imagine that Obama has set up a system in which non-elected lawyers run the government. If that is what he’s done, it is both unprecedented and entirely unacceptable.