In damage control on multiple fronts, the White House on Tuesday struggled to contain a series of escalating scandals that likely will test President Obama’s willingness to hold administration officials accountable.
With the high-profile exception of former CIA Director David H. Petraeus’ resignation late last year over an embarrassing extramarital affair, there have been very few face-saving departures or resignations of administration officials during Mr. Obama’s time in office.
Van Jones, the former White House environmental czar, quit after only six months in the job for his associations with far-left and 9/11 Truth groups, and the Obama administration forced the resignation of Shirley Sherrod, a state director of an Agriculture Department program. The Sherrod furor, however, came over some misinterpreted comments in a badly edited video, and the administration was forced to apologize and offer her a different job.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. managed to escape blame in the botched “Fast and Furious” gunrunning investigation because he said he knew nothing about it.
But the latest string of controversies — particularly the revelation that the IRS singled out conservative groups for additional scrutiny on tax-exemption claims — has members on both sides of the aisle up in arms and will show just how committed the president is to ferreting out failure, ethical lapses or abuse of power within the executive branch.
In a White House statement issued late Monday, Mr. Obama called the IRS actions “intolerable and inexcusable,” and said he has directed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to “hold those responsible for these failures accountable.”
It was the strongest language yet from a White House that had — until this latest statement — approached the IRS controversy with caution.
Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Jay Carney said would hold people accountable “if” the story turns out to be true.
“The ‘if’ is important here,” he stressed to reporters, even though the IRS has acknowledged singling out conservative groups and apologized for doing so.
But on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are already moving forward with multiple hearings on the matter — the first set to take place Friday.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat and a prime tea party target in 2012, said heads should roll, calling the politicization of the nation’s tax laws “an offense to what we are as a country.”
“Someone should be fired, and it should not just be some line employee,” she said. “Anyone who was in a position of responsibility that knows this very un-American activity was going on should be fired.”
Jenny Beth Martin, the head of the Tea Party Patriots, a group targeted by the IRS, has called for immediate firings of those responsible, a demand echoed by numerous Republicans in Congress.
The calls for accountability could have more traction than usual as the White House is dealing with a pile-up of scandals. The administration is struggling to respond to last week’s revelations from Benghazi whistleblowers, as well as news of another unsavory government overreach.
The telephone records of at least 20 Associated Press editors and reporters were sought in an effort to find out who leaked them news that the CIA had foiled a terrorist plot in Yemen aimed at detonating a bomb on a U.S.-bound plane.
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.