Obama’s three scandals: a closer look

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington photographed on May 14, 2013

Perhaps adopting the word “scandal,” as I did in the headline on this post, is getting ahead of ourselves. Three separate stories, which some are prepared to treat as scandals, have Washington buzzing and spinning. They are:

  • Benghazi.

  • The IRS scrutiny of “Tea Party” organizations.

  • The Justice Department spying on the Associated Press.

All three represent things worth talking about, explaining what went wrong and investigating. One can imagine a healthy political culture in which this could occur constructively.

Given the state of our hyper-partisanized finger-pointing political culture, it’s natural that many on the right will exaggerate the gravity of each of them and many on the left will dismiss them as the latest instance of Obama Derangement Syndrome.

You will hear sadder-but-wiser Washington pundits talking about “second term syndrome,” which they treat as an iron law that a president unfortunate enough to be reelected cannot avoid having the second term clobbered by scandal (Nixon/Watergate; Reagan/Iran-Contra; Clinton/Monica Lewinsky).

Impeachment

Some on the left are convinced that there is no way to stop the Republican-controlled House from turning some combination of the three into a full-fledged impeachment crisis. In a piece for the Daily Beast headlined “The Coming Attempt to Impeach Obama,” Michael Tomasky writes that, of course impeaching Obama would be utter madness, but, he argues, “utter madness is what today’s Republicans do.”

That seems a little strong to me and I don’t think we are headed for serious impeachment talk. But, Constitution maven that I pretend to be, I would point out that impeachment requires only a majority vote in the House, and Republicans have a majority. And it is up to the House majority to decide what constitutes an impeachably high crime or misdemeanor. On the other hand, removal of the president (which has never happened) requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Even if the Repubs pick up the six Senate seats they need to take over control of the Senate in 2015, they would be nowhere near the two-thirds needed to convict. On the third hand, or whatever hand I’m up to, if the Repubs really want to shut down the government, an impeachment process will pretty much do it.

Benghazi

In the matter of Benghazi, we are a thousand miles away from evidence that President Obama said or did anything that could be ginned up into an impeachable offense. Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), who is leading the charge on that one, did a good job on “Meet the Press” on Sunday repeating on every possible occasion the three areas about which he believes further inquiry is justified, namely:

  1. Should more have been done in advance of the attack to beef up security?

  2. Could more have been done during the attack to rescue the U.S. diplomats and other personnel?

  3. Why were the famous “talking points” edited to shift the focus from terrorist groups to a spontaneous mob incensed over an offensive internet video?

Again, in a healthier political environment it should be possible to try to learn the right lessons, especially on the first two questions, to decrease the chance of future deaths. But on the first two, there is little chance that any mistakes were the result of malfeasance in the sense of ill motives.

On the “talking points,” certainly the editing that occurred seems suspicious. The basic Repub assumption — that someone was trying to hush up any references to terrorists because that would undermine the Obama we-have-decimated-Al-Qaida narrative in the middle of the 2012 campaign — is perhaps credible but, so far, not backed up by a scintilla of evidence.

In his column in Tuesday’s New York Times, David Brooks produces an impressive narrative of the evolution of the talking points, suggesting that a key factor was inter-agency blame-shifting between the CIA and the State Department.

But either way, bear in mind, we are talking only about a document prepared to get an administration spokesperson through appearances on the Sunday talk shows. If it is a crime to be less than totally forthcoming on a TV talk show, I fear the entire political class is in trouble.

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi
REUTERS/Esam Al-FetoriThe U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in flames on Sept. 11, 2012.

Yes, if it turns out that President Obama issued an order to Susan Rice to lie to the American public to help him get re-elected, that would be a scandal. But even then, I doubt it would be a seriously impeachable offense.

Eleanor Clift dug up Watergate figure John Dean for his impression of the gravity of the Benghazi scandal:

The former White House counsel dismissed the flap over Benghazi as “loose charges” in search of a scandal, and the battle over the talking points “a CYA [cover your ass] operation between two different agencies,” with the State Department and the CIA seeking to shift blame for the security lapses that led to the deaths of four Americans.

“’When you have a good scandal, one that has legs, you know what the underlying problem is,’” Dean said. Benghazi fails that test.

President Obama, by the way, keeps asserting that within three days of the Benghazi, incident he “acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism.” That is designed to mock the idea of any big, false, administration effort to deny that fact.

WashPost fact-checker Glenn Kessler keeps reminding folks that that’s a substantial exaggeration of what Obama actually said. I admire Kessler’s tenacity in the pursuit of factual accuracy. And Obama should drop that particular defense (which he also used to great effect in one of the presidential debates) or he runs at least a slight risk of getting into what-the-meaning-of-the-word-is-is territory (although, unlike President Bill Clinton’s “is-is” moment, Obama wasn’t speaking under oath).

The IRS/Tea Party

This is the worst of the three “scandals” in term of actual wrongdoing. The IRS should absolutely not be using partisan/ideological screens for deciding whose applications for tax-exempt status to investigate.

Several things should be noted that somewhat reduce the outrageousness of what occurred:

The IRS is not supposed to grant this particular tax status to organizations that are fundamentally “political.” The bar for demonstrating that an organization is not fundamentally political is ridiculously low. It would be reasonable to subject organizations with “Tea Party” in their names to a serious look on that basis. The trouble comes when the IRS takes that serious look only at organizations whose names suggest their suspected politics are on the right side of the spectrum.

So far as we know, none of the organizations were denied the status for which they applied, but many of them had their applications held up for many months and even years.

The seriousness of this one keeps creeping up. Early reporting suggested that the objectionable policy was limited to a small number of relatively low-level officials in the Cincinnati regional IRS office. On Tuesday, Washington reporters learned that at least knowledge of the problem had reached as high as the IRS acting national director, but it’s not yet known what role any of the higher ups played once they knew about the problem.   

President Obama condemned the practice as soon as he found out about it (so far as we know) and made clear that after a fair, thorough investigation, those responsible would face consequences. A definitive report on the problem by the inspector general of the IRS was anxiously awaited until yesterday, when reporters learned that the report was completed. But reporters who received a copy said that it was so heavily redacted that, for example, there was no way to figure how the offending policy was adopted in the first place.

Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday that he would investigate whether the abuse of IRS discretion might rise to the level of criminality and the FBI has opened such an investigation.

For scandal-hype purposes, the simple Tea-Party-groups-harrassed-by-IRS-under-Dem-administration version of the story led John Stewart to satirically declare:

Congratulations, President Barack Obama. Conspiracy theorists, who generally can survive in an anaerobic environment just had an algae bloom dropped on their [bleep]ing heads.

The AP phone records

This third and most recent of the three potential scandals is the least developed so far. Here’s what we think we know.

Without notifying the Associated Press at the time, the Justice Department subpoenaed and acquired the records for several phone numbers connected to the AP. Last week, Justice notified the AP that it had done so. The inquiry did not extend to what was said on the calls, only who called whom.

The Justice Department has confirmed that the inquiry is about leaks of classified information. Attorney General  Holder said Tuesday that the leak was one of the gravest he has seen in his long career as a federal prosecutor, and that it placed American lives at risk.

The government has not officially confirmed this, but given the timing of the calls in question, it appears likely that the investigation related to a May 7, 2012, AP report about a classified operation in Yemen that successfully foiled a plot to blow up an airliner. The AP’s attorney says that the news service had actually held the story, at the government’s request, in order to reduce any potential damage to national security concerns.

He also said that the government should at least have notified the AP before executing the search so the AP could have appealed to a court and a judge could have made the determination about whether the national security interests were sufficient to overrule the First Amendment press-freedom considerations.

As a journalist, I share the AP’s concern about efforts to monitor contacts between journalists and confidential sources.

According to the Bloomberg news organization’s coverage:

Under [Attorney General Eric] Holder, the Justice Department has prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined. The Obama administration has brought indictments against five government workers for leaking information.

Several congressional leaders of both parties have denounced the subpoenas. Some Republicans have tied it to the “talking points” and the IRS/Tea Party stories on the basis that in all three cases the White House has said that President Obama was unaware of the incidents.

Writing for the American Prospect, Paul Waldman joined those who predict that impeachment talk will take over:

Republicans will begin calling for President Obama’s impeachment; first it’ll be a few nutbar Tea Partiers, then it will spread to some of the seemingly more sane ones, and finally the desire for impeachment will be nearly universal on the right. John Boehner will know in his heart that it’s a terrible idea, but he may be confronted with a rebellion: schedule an impeachment vote, or face a leadership vote. Boehner’s choice could be between impeachment and seeing Eric Cantor take his job (whereupon there’d be an impeachment vote anyway).

Waldman then compared the latest incidents to Watergate, Iran/Contra and Clinton’s sex scandal:

Those were real scandals… Maybe this time around we’ll discover something no one has even contemplated—say, that Hillary Clinton discovered a low-level State Department functionary who was about to blow the whistle on her secret romance with a Mexican drug lord, whereupon she killed him with her bare hands. But probably not.

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/15/2013 - 11:04 am.

    Two things are accomplished: drip, drip, drip, eroding public confidence; second, turn the second administration into a prolonged replay of the Clinton years when they were crippled by repeated and convoluted invented scandals.

    It’s a strategy for a “do-nothing” Congress to look busy.

    Its a way to muddy the implementation of Obamacare.

    It’s a way to take immigration reform off the front burner.

    It’s a tool for hiding Republican failures.

    The Benghazi scandal relates to the nuance of a couple words in the initial press briefing. The IRS scandal has to do with the actions of relatively low-level actors in the agency. The AP phone records issue is an artifact of the post-Patriot Act world, which needless to say, is extremely popular with Republicans.

    Sanity would find it hard to say to say that “Obama did this” for any of those scandals. But that’s not really the issue, is it?

    • Submitted by Joseph Skar on 05/15/2013 - 12:18 pm.

      IRS

      Given the time frame of the IRS issues was right in the middle of an election, it would be “sane” to say the President’s motivation would be to impair funding to political opponents. Given we are commenting on a website that is a nonprofit, it would reasonable to say if Minnpost was not granted nonprofit status that its donation would be materially less then current levels. I believe the same would be true for 501(c)(4) entities, no tax exempt status no donations.

      Low level actors? Does that included the Acting Commissioner of the IRS? Him having material knowledge of targeting in May of 2012 (before the election) and not notifying the Administration is a significant issue.

      • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/15/2013 - 01:27 pm.

        Sanity?

        Given that the organizations being scrutinized by the IRS were, and are, engaged in influencing voters, it is, in fact, sane for the IRS to at least give their applications for nonprofit status more than a casual look. That those organizations can make that application is one of the side effects of the loathsome “Citizens United” ruling by the SCOTUS. The 501(c)(4) entities in question, for example, have bent over backwards to block attempts to require them to disclose their donors. To use a line I’ve often heard from people who call themselves “conservative,” if you’ve done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide. I’ll begin to view well-funded 501(c)(4) organizations as benign when their donor lists begin to appear. Until then, skepticism seems justified.

        But I digress. The reason that trying to turn low-level IRS actions into a presidential scandal is simply another right wing pile of horsefeathers is this: Since there’s no evidence — let me say that again: there is NO EVIDENCE — that the President knew of IRS actions in these instances, much less that he might have directed them to be taken, why is it “sane” to suggest that the President’s “motivation” would be to “impair funding” to political opponents? There’s no evidence that the President was “motivated” to do anything at all in this regard, or in this case, since he found out about it after the fact. As is usually the case, innuendo is something for conspiracy theorists to fall back on when they have no facts.

        One might just as reasonably argue that the IRS is being hounded for political purposes by Congressional Republicans simply for doing its job, part of which is to determine the legitimacy of 501(c)(4) applications.

        • Submitted by Joseph Skar on 05/15/2013 - 02:50 pm.

          No Evidence

          The only evidence is the total lack of structural communication and accountability. Every other complex origination in world would have leadership taking timely responsibility for the actions of the organization. I can’t understand how something of this magnitude wouldn’t have been brought to the attention of leadership sooner, especially given the acting Commissioner of IRS knew in May of 2012. Please tell me how you think he is a low level figure?

          Regardless of your opinion of 501(c)(4), the reality of leadership is you are ultimately responsibility for the actions of your organization, especially with respect to public perception. The President can and will say he was completely uninvolved (which I’m sure is true), but how does that reflect on his ability lead a nation or for the public to believe different elements of government can work together in a timely effective manner?

          • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/15/2013 - 03:07 pm.

            The Bush appointee was in charge in the 2012 period when the issue was brought forward.

            Shouldn’t you be pillorying him?

            • Submitted by Joseph Skar on 05/15/2013 - 04:09 pm.

              So you’re arguing that a Bush appointee didn’t escalate discrimination against conservative groups? That seems slightly counterintuitive, but I hope it makes you feel better. A more logical argument would be that the position is a non-political appointment and a Dem Senate approved the confirmation in 2008, so the issue is likely structural in nature?

              • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/15/2013 - 10:06 pm.

                It makes it far more likely that the Bush-appointed Commissioner regarded it, as most, agent discretion applied perhaps too enthusiastically.

                After all, do you regard the T party as a “political group” or a “general welfare” organization in which politics were only a minor part of its activities? It’s the difference between having a tax-exempt status of that particular type or not.

                I bet the great majority of Americans regarded the T party as a political organization at that time, and still do.

                Michelle Bachmann and the T party caucus??

                Nothing political about that, eh?

                • Submitted by Joseph Skar on 05/16/2013 - 08:34 am.

                  You don’t understand the issue

                  The issue is not the application of 501(c)(4), its the discrimination in the application. I personally do not think any of the aforementioned activities are worthy of tax exempt status, nor Minnpost for that matter, but that will not change the law. As long as the law exists it needs to be applied uniformly.

                  You keep mentioning Bush appointee as if he was some kind of hyper political appointment, effectively a crutch for any acceptance of responsibility. This is just false, he was confirmed by a Dem Senate and seemed unaffected by Congressional Republican grilling not even two years ago, so at the surface he seemed to be, correctly, non-political. Lastly, have you ever worked with an IRS agent? In my experiences the agents are incredibly issue/detail focused by the time they get to the actually taxpayer. This is possible because the screening and issue identification occurs prior to agent assignment. It been a long time but I also recall their reporting structure is very similar to public accounting, many layer of staff up to managers then directors (best practice for quality and consistency). That said there is almost no way this wasn’t a directive.

          • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/15/2013 - 05:02 pm.

            Under your analysis

            President Bush and Vice President Cheney obviosly should have been tried for treason because Scooter Libby was convicted for outing a CIA agent. Sounds great.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/15/2013 - 03:05 pm.

        Gosh, it’s as clears as day……

        501(c)(4)s “may engage in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office provided that such intervention does not constitute the organization’s primary activity.” Generally, such groups avoid directly endorsing or calling for a vote against particular candidates, so as not to arouse IRS suspicion that their primary purpose is not social welfare, but they can actually engage in a limited amount of that, too.

        Now why would anyone think that the primary purpose of Tea Party / right wing groups in the leadup to the 2012 election would be mainly organized to support or oppose a candidate??

        That’s such an unreasonable and audacious leap of logic on the part of the IRS, politics were always a minor part of the purpose of the Tea Party, right?

        Or not..

        By the way:

        (quote)

        For what it’s worth, the last confirmed commissioner of the I.R.S. was Douglas H. Shulman. He was appointed by President George W. Bush and served a full term from 2008 through 2012, including the period when I.R.S. employees are said to have put added demands on conservative groups applying for tax exempt status. Investigators told Congressional staffers that Mr. Shulman was informed of the problems in May of 2012.

        Since Mr. Shulman’s term ended, the agency has been run by an acting commissioner, Steven T. Miller, who has had a long career at the I.R.S., including as deputy commissioner and commissioner overseeing tax exempt organizations. (Mr. Miller, apparently, was also informed about the problems last May.)

        Mr. Obama has yet to nominate a new commissioner, and given Senate Republicans’ refusal to confirm many of his nominees, it is doubtful that such an important post will be filled — leaving the agency, the administration and the nation especially vulnerable to mismanagement and its inevitable political fallout.

        http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/is-the-i-r-s-an-independent-agency/

        (end quote)

        So, the real answer to Mr. Boehner’s question of “who should go to jail “, is the Bush appointee–in charge when the “scandal” happened….

  2. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 05/15/2013 - 02:26 pm.

    Thanks for the laugh, Eric

    “One can imagine a healthy political culture in which this could occur constructively.”

  3. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/15/2013 - 02:34 pm.

    Eric, please

    Examine the administration from 2001 through 2008 – a “continuous scandal”

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 05/15/2013 - 02:40 pm.

    Much ado about nothing

    The GOP was devastated by Obama’s reelection. Their sole purpose is to get him regardless of its effect on the country. I doubt if they will succeed, but eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

  5. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 05/15/2013 - 02:40 pm.

    IRS bad actors & more

    The majority of IRS employees are probably Democrats. They did what they did because they believed they were helping the Obama administration and the Democratic party. Obama didn’t need to direct them to do anything. They chose to act the way they did by themselves.
    What puzzles me the most about the Benghazi incident is, if Obama gave an order to help the victims of the attack, someone, somewhere disobeyed an order from the Commander in Chief. Who was it? Why hasn’t this person been court martialed or at least demoted? Or did Obama just go to bed because he had to get up early to go fundraising in Las Vegas, in dereliction of duty, and gave no orders at all? In that case, Obama lied to cover up his lack of attention to a crisis.
    Finally, the AP reporters scandal is an odd one. What did the Justice Department need the phone numbers for? How would the phone numbers help find a security leak?

    • Submitted by David Wintheiser on 05/15/2013 - 03:23 pm.

      Employees

      The majority of IRS employees are almost certainly accounting and business-school graduates, two groups well known for their liberal political beliefs.

      Much of government’s actual function isn’t political but bureaucratic, and in that sense is largely non-partisan, except in rare cases where a political appointee is put in charge and given a political agenda to change the function of that part of the bureaucracy. (See Cheri Yecke and the MN Department of Education, as an example.)

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/15/2013 - 04:34 pm.

      More speculation

      Than on Wall Street

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/15/2013 - 05:28 pm.

      Outrage!

      Good job repeating the stock right-wing talking points.

      What puzzles me most about the Benghazi incident is why Republicans are getting their collective knickers in a twist over the talking points on Sunday morning news shows. It’s doubtful that any effective military action could have been taken in time to do any good, and I imagine that communications during multiple crises like that are confused, at best. Security was inadequate because Republicans, despite or because of requests by the administration, cut funds for diplomatic security. Would we care to go there, Rep. Issa? How about you, Senator McCain–care to remind us of your outrage at the 40+ US diplomats killed during the Bush administration?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/15/2013 - 07:09 pm.

      He was probably

      reading about his Pet Goat.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/15/2013 - 05:20 pm.

    Just to emphasize

    what impeachment is:
    Federal impeachment is the bringing of charges by the House of Representatives against “….”The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States…”. This requires a simple majority.
    Once impeachment has been passed by the House by a simple majority,, then the Senate conducts what is essentially a trial, with a 2/3 vote needed for conviction.
    The basic point is that, as the Clinton case demonstrated, the simple act of impeachment is itself enough to immobilize a president for the remainder of his term. That is the Republican’s main goal, not conviction (something which the GOP lacks).

  7. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 05/15/2013 - 04:08 pm.

    What’s in a number?

    There have been only three times on our country’s history in which a) the Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives; b) for two consecutive Congresses; c) in opposition to the President. The first two, 1865-69 and 1995-99, resulted in presidential impeachments in the third of the four years. As to the current instance, stay tuned. Will the Republican Party ever accept the idea of a “loyal opposition?”

  8. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/15/2013 - 05:11 pm.

    Impeachment

    Right now I don’t see anything that points to impeachment and frankly I think that’s the wrong way to look at these scandals. It’s not like we should just gloss over anything below the impeachment line. All three of these deserve attention, especially the IRS one, and frankly, it’s disappointing the lengths that so many of the Presidents supporters will go to try and simply wish it away.

  9. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/15/2013 - 05:12 pm.

    IRS

    This is pretty straightforward. If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that had been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous and there’s no place for it. And they have to be held fully accountable, because the IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity, and people have to have confidence that they’re applying the laws in a non-partisan way.

  10. Submitted by Joe Musich on 05/15/2013 - 08:45 pm.

    so the tea party organizations yet unnamed should have…

    not been investigated for possible fraud ? Seems Spock might say, “that’s not logical, Jim.”

  11. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/15/2013 - 09:32 pm.

    Always interesting

    Its a republican rouse demonstrating their total incapability to govern in a meaning full manner unless there is someone stuffing $ bills in their pockets!
    Where is the Congressional investigation for the 20+ gunned down at Sandy hook those folks weren’t real people, they don’t count, that’s right they were in a school not a terrorist ridden country that went through a civil war, no break down ar Sandy Hook exactly as the NRA planned? The cowards couldn’t run fast enough for the exits and the cover of their NRA lobbyists. Lets get real folks, this a pure and simple rouse “The IRS is their to catch cheats” The cowardly congress on purpose left 90% of the law open for interpretation so their buddies could cheat and shovel money into their election campaigns. “Disgusting cheats” is the correct phrase. The US ranks 1 step above Chile on the corruption scale and looks like we are more than willing to race to the bottom. Like no one saw the disgusting adds last election, you would have to be a pure idiot to think that those classified as “Educational or informative”.

    Really great idea guys, lets de-fang the IRS so that more folks can cheat, hey soon we’ll look like a real 3rd world shoot-em tax free country, Somalia, that’s it lets look like Somalia!

  12. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/15/2013 - 09:43 pm.

    IRS loses an employee

    Shame on the Administration for finding a scapegoat for a NON-SCANDAL and throwing him under the bus. No deaths were recorded in the IRS non-matter yet the head guy loses his job? Fortunately he’ll probably get another job in the department like the state department did with it’s scapegoats.

  13. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/17/2013 - 11:11 pm.

    Make that 2 employees

    Another person banished by the administration on a NON-SCANDAL.

  14. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 05/19/2013 - 12:07 pm.

    “Scandals”

    Benghazi: Republicans altered the emails. Scandal evaporates, though it should take a massive U-turn.
    IRS: Oh, look, it turns out liberal groups were targeted too. Blatantly so, if you expand the investigation into the previous administration.
    Umbrellagate: Why look, here’s photos of all the people who complained, themselves being sheltered by umbrellas held by others (including uniformed Marines).

    Meanwhile, the REAL scandals, like oh say a Supreme Court Justice who used to work for Monsanto and has ruled for them in every case that’s come before him, go ignored. I’d hate for the Democrats to become another party of muck-for-its-own-sake, but some of these ninnies on the “right” need a good dose of their own medicine.

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