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IRS, Benghazi, AP: The Problems Pile Up for Obama

IRS, Benghazi, AP: The Problems Pile Up for Obama

By Alexis Simendinger - May 14, 2013

Sometimes when it rains on second-term presidents, they need more than an umbrella.

President Obama tried Monday to dismiss as “political games” persistent questions about how the White House handled last year’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya, while at the same time a new uproar about IRS scrutiny of conservative advocacy organizations ignited on Capitol Hill. Obama said if IRS agents willfully exercised political bias, responsible personnel must be “held accountable.”

As he was speaking during a brief news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the reactions of House and Senate lawmakers suggested Obama did little to tamp down the Benghazi controversies, which have persisted since extremists killed four Americans there in September. Nor did he temper the bipartisan outrage following Friday’s news of an IRS inspector general draft report citing the agency’s mishandling of conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status, dating back to March 2010.

By the afternoon, the Justice Department was also in the hot seat after the Associated Press reported that, during April and May, the government secretly obtained phone and fax records connected to AP reporters and editors -- part of an apparent hunt for government leaks. The phone data involved at least 20 personal, work and fax lines, including a phone in the Capitol that is used by multiple AP reporters, the news organization reported.

The AP protested the data-gathering in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, who was already scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.

Republicans, sensing stormy weather for Obama, leaped to defend the First Amendment, and to condemn the administration.

“Americans should take notice that top Obama administration officials increasingly see themselves as above the law and emboldened by the belief that they don’t have to answer to anyone,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a statement.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, asked to comment on Justice’s clandestine data-gathering from the largest global wire service, referred questions to the department.

As for the Benghazi inquiry, Issa on Monday sent letters to the co-chairs of an independent review board -- former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen -- seeking to question the two men about how they conducted their review and why they did not interview former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about her actions before the attacks and as the administration revised various explanations of the Sept. 11 events in Libya.

Pickering and Mullen have said they obtained sufficient information without questioning Clinton, and that they were tasked to examine the administration’s security failures, not the drafting of controversial talking points that initially blamed a mob uprising, rather than terrorists, for the deaths of the Americans.

Issa has said he wants to examine why the review panel, assembled by Clinton before she left government last year, issued a report that in the chairman’s opinion proved “incomplete.”

The investigators unanimously concluded, in part, that “every possible effort was made to rescue and recover Ambassador [Christopher] Stevens and [diplomat] Sean Smith. The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”

After Obama’s comments at the White House news conference, aides to House Speaker John Boehner accused the president of not having his “facts straight.”

Obama, for his part, decried Capitol Hill inquisitors for turning the Benghazi aftermath into a “political circus” that he believed has dishonored the slain public servants killed while also distracting from the “tragedy” that was aggravated by insufficient security protections in Libya.

Sounding deeply frustrated with congressional investigations and GOP opponents, the president said, “We've had folks who have challenged Hillary Clinton's integrity, [United Nations Ambassador] Susan Rice's integrity, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering's integrity. It's a given that mine gets challenged by these same folks.”

He expanded on that theme in his remarks at a fundraiser Monday night in New York City: “The only thing that’s holding us back is a spirit in Washington that isn't reflective of the spirit of the American people; a spirit in Washington that’s more interested in game-playing than getting things done; a spirit in Washington that is more concerned about the next election than the next generation. And that has to change. And that’s why you’re here tonight -- because you know it has to change.” 

Regarding IRS activities, the House Ways and Means Committee announced Monday it will hold a hearing Friday.

Obama said he first learned about the inspector general’s draft findings of abuses on May 10, when media reports included excerpts from a government investigative report, along with explanations from IRS officials that conceded operational mistakes.

The White House Counsel’s Office received preliminary information about the IG probe three weeks ago, in advance of the president being apprised, Carney added during a briefing aboard Air Force One Monday afternoon.

“The White House Counsel’s Office was alerted in the week of April 22nd of this year, only about the fact that the IG was finishing a review about matters involving the [IRS] office in Cincinnati. But that’s all they were informed as a normal sort of heads up,” Carney said.

Obama told American and British journalists Monday, “If you've got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, then that is outrageous. It is contrary to our traditions, and people have to be held accountable. And it's got to be fixed.”

Lawmakers will press the White House to explain how the president and his advisers could have remained in the dark about such targeting of conservative organizations when prominent Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and conservative groups and mainstream media had described evidence -- over several years -- of what McConnell called Obama’s “enemies list” treatment, executed by tax law enforcers.

Two and a half years ago, media outlets excerpted a Sept. 28, 2010, letter sent to the IRS by Democratic Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, in which he cited a string of news reports about conservative groups that operated as non-political advocacy operations under the law.

A month away from tough midterm elections, Baucus asked the IRS commissioner to “survey major 501(c)(4), (c)(5), and (c)(6) organizations to determine whether they are acting as conduits for major donors advancing their own private interests regarding legislation or political campaigns, or are providing major donors with excess benefits.”

In upcoming hearings, the IRS will be asked by lawmakers why groups that utilized the “social welfare” tax shield were treated differently when they were Republican-leaning. Organizing for Action, the former Obama campaign operation now working to enact the president’s agenda as a nonprofit “social welfare” group under the tax code, will likely become a more recent example of a group that faced little additional IRS scrutiny.

During Monday’s 30-minute joint news conference in the East Room, the president and Cameron also discussed the intractable civil war in Syria, fresh on the heels of the British leader’s discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government continues to back the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Cameron also defended his determination that the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union.

“I want to see the European Union change,” he said. “I want to see Britain's relationship with the European [Union] change and improve … because Europe has to change, because the single currency is driving change for that part of the European Union that is in the single currency. And just as they want changes, so I believe Britain is quite entitled to ask for and to get changes in response.”

RCP Capitol Hill reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed to this report.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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