"Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive."
This ancient admonition, commonly attributed to William Shakespeare but actually the work of Sir Walter Scott, now applies to how Barack Obama's White House has been in a full cover-up mode over the widening Internal Revenue Service scandal.
One week after the bombshell story broke that the tax agency has been targeting conservative groups with extra, delay-lengthening scrutiny over their applications for tax-exempt status during the 2011-12 election cycle, we find out that the details were known at the highest levels of the White House.
Moreover, we're asked to believe that President Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough — who talks to his boss daily to keep him informed about what's going on — and White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, both of whom knew about the inspector general's audit in April, never said a word about it to the president.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican veteran of many political wars, said that if Mr. McDonough didn't tell the president about a scandal that was going to fall on him like a ton of bricks, he had no business being chief of staff.
Mr. Barbour thinks the Justice Department has no credibility to get to the bottom of this scandal and that this is a job for an independent special prosecutor. The White House's "story keeps changing," he said. Does it ever.
At the outset, the White House characterized the abuse-riddden, political scandal as merely a bureaucratic snafu in what was described as an overworked, budget-stretched IRS office in Cincinnati, and nothing more than that.
Then it was revealed that the IRS' egregious demands for constitutionally protected information — names of the groups' donors and even speeches group leaders made — came from IRS offices from California to Washington, D.C.
Mr. Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, maintained last week that no one in the White House knew about the abuses. Then, on Monday, he revealed to a stunned White House press corps that officials in the West Wing not only knew about the investigation, but in some cases knew what the inspector general's report found.
In the space of one week, the White House's truth-challenged story went from a field office in Cincinnati to a nationwide IRS inquisition of conservative Tea Party groups to the doorstep of the president's office.
Not only did Ms. Ruemmler tell Mr. McDonough and other White House officials about the IRS findings a month ago, she maintained that the scandal's details shouldn't be reported to Mr. Obama.
The flimsy, hard-to-believe reasons Ms. Ruemmler gave for supposedly hiding the length and breadth of this unfolding scandal from the president are hard to swallow. It was because the inspector general's report was not finalized at that point, she argued, and he could not be seen interfering with the investigation until it had been completed.
Obviously, this gave Mr. Obama presidential deniability to hide behind. Last week, he said he first heard about the IRS scandal when the story broke in the news media. The critically important question that a bunch of House and Senate investigating committees are preparing to ask is this: What did the president know, and when did he know it?
There are lots of reasons to be suspicious of the White House's explanations thus far and even to conclude that a cover-up was underway. The day before Mr. Carney revealed for the first time that senior White House officials knew all about this, senior presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in a number of Sunday TV interviews that the White House didn't know about the inspector general's report until it was released last week.
Earlier, Mr. Carney had told the press that Ms. Ruemmler knew "only about the fact that the [inspector general] was finishing a review" of the IRS abuses that he labels as merely "inappropriate."
The White House's previous claims that no one really knew about the details of the ongoing investigation is laughable on its face. People knew about this a long time ago elsewhere in the administration.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin and other political appointees in the administration knew about the inspector general's investigation last year. It was long known on Capitol Hill, too.
J. Russell George, Treasury's inspector general for tax administration, wrote to Rep. Darrell E. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in July 2012 to brief him on the investigation.
"Communications between the Treasury Department and the White House also have turned out to be broader than initially acknowledged," according to a Washington Post story Tuesday. "At one point, Mark Patterson, the Treasury chief of staff, talked about the timing of the report with Mark Childress, deputy White House chief of staff," the newspaper said.
As for Ms. Ruemmler's claim that the president could not be told about the investigation because he could not interfere with an ongoing audit, experts reject that specious notion out of hand.
Joseph Newman, chief spokesman for the Project on Government Oversight, sees no legal barriers that would prevent the White House counsel from telling the president of an upcoming audit. "Once the president knows about some wrongdoing, he shouldn't be prevented from taking remedial action," Mr. Newman said.
This is a scandal of enormous proportions, and the worst of it, as is often the case, is the cover-up. Little more than 10 days ago, the White House was telling us that Mr. Obama's legal counsel only knew that an audit was conducted, but knew nothing about its details.
Now we know that Ms. Ruemmler, the chief of staff and others in authority around the president knew all about it.
Does anyone really, truly think Mr. Obama was kept in the dark about this?
A large majority of Americans, including 59 percent of independents, think that the IRS "deliberately harassed conservative groups by targeting them for extra scrutiny," according to a Post poll Tuesday. Three-fourths of those polled called the IRS actions "inappropriate." How about illegal?
It should be clear by now that the Obama White House has been engaged in another cover-up that cries out for the enactment of a special prosecutor — the sooner the better.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.
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