On Sept. 29, 1973, President Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, made “a terrible mistake.” She was reviewing a tape recording from the previous year when she took a break to take a phone call. She meant to hit the pause button, she said, but hit the record button by accident — and poof, an 18½-minute gap.
No one will ever know what was in that infamous gap. But the unbelievable story helped propel the impeachment against Nixon, and he would fly off into ignominy with that sad double peace salute and a jowly head shake.
The case against Nixon was airtight. The Watergate break-in was bad, but there was more, much more. Article 2 of the Articles of Impeachment against Nixon charged that he “endeavored to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposes not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigation to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”
And he had. There was proof. Watergate was worse, got all the press, but Nixon had completely abused the power of the presidency and had to go.
A president, while lacking legislative heft, has enormous power. He appoints federal workers throughout the government — and those appointees follow the directives of the White House. But such enormous power brings dangers the founders hadn’t really envisioned: What if the government uses its enormous power to target its enemies?
That’s exactly what the Internal Revenue Service did under President Obama before the 2012 election. The IRS, “in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens,” targeted conservative groups by conducting income tax audits and other income tax investigations “in a discriminatory manner.”
There isn’t much dispute there. The IRS sought to delay tax-exempt status for conservative and tea party groups, and succeeded (as the government often does when fighting its foes). So Congress, which has oversight of all things government, asked for all correspondence among the major players.
A year later, the Obama administration said sorry, we don’t have it. But there wasn’t an 18½-minute gap — this time, there was a 26-month gap.
In a late-Friday move of the sort first made infamous by the Clinton White House, the Obama administration dumped the news that the IRS has lost more than two years of emails sent by former official Lois Lerner, who oversaw the agency effort to target conservative groups.
Shortly before Mr. Obama headed to California for a weekend of golf, and not long after he vowed to let Iraq spiral into chaos, the IRS announced it just couldn’t find any emails from January 2009 to April 2011. Seems there was a “computer crash” and (deja vu), poof, all the emails disappeared.
The emails reportedly include missives from Ms. Lerner to the White House, Treasury, Justice, the Federal Election Commission and many congressional Democrats. Tens of thousands of emails are gone forever.
The agency late Friday informed House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, who was beyond peeved.
“The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’s response to congressional inquiries,” the Michigan Republican said in a statement. “There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the Inspector General” of the Treasury Department, he said.
Mr. Camp went on: “These are the critical years of the targeting of conservative groups that could explain who knew what when, and what, if any, coordination there was between agencies,” he said. “Instead, because of this loss of documents, we are conveniently left to believe that Lois Lerner acted alone.”
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was more indignant: “Isn’t it convenient for the Obama administration that the IRS now says it has suddenly realized it lost Lois Lerner’s emails requested by Congress?”
“Do they really expect the American people to believe that, after having withheld these emails for a year, they’re just now realizing the most critical time period is missing?”
The missing emails equal the 18½-minute gap. It’s time for a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the mess.
It’s all worse than you thought — much worse. Where we are now is Nixonian. The only question is: Do the Republicans have the cojones to go there?
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @josephcurl.