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Just as in Fast in Furious, Mr. Holder also is claiming to be in the dark about efforts to subpoena the AP’s telephone records. He has recused himself from the investigation, and says the decision to seek the media records was made by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.

Late last week, the White House faced a barrage of new questions on its handling of last year’s attack in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in a violent assault since 1979.

The White House has said an internal State Department investigation was unsparing and found systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels. But then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was not interviewed in the probe and no one at State was fired.

While Mr. Obama could help defuse the IRS story by firing someone before Friday’s first congressional hearing on the matter, jumping the gun like the administration did with Ms. Sherrod could also make the problem worse, warns Steve Ryan, an attorney at McDermott Will & Emery and a former counsel to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

The IRS has few politically appointed positions for a reason, Mr. Ryan said, and Mr. Obama needs time to determine who is truly responsible before bringing down the hatchet.

“A lot of presidents have problems firing officials,” Mr. Ryan said, recalling that President George W. Bush gave Michael D. Brown, the beleaguered head of FEMA blamed for mishandling Hurricane Katrina, two 30-day contract extensions even after he resigned.

But the public and lawmakers are so outraged by the IRS being used as a political weapon, it’s likely only a matter of time before the ax falls.

New reports out Tuesday show that Steve Miller, the acting IRS commissioner, knew the IRS was targeting conservative groups for extra review in May 2012 but that information was shielded from Congress and the public until Friday.

Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS’s exempt-organizations division, admitted last week that low-level IRS staffers in Cincinnati focused extra scrutiny on conservative groups with the words such as “tea party” or “patriot” in their names. Since then, internal reviews have shown that Ms. Lerner, a career IRS official, knew about the targeting in 2011.