Two weeks ago, no one had heard of the IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. A week ago, no one in the White House knew anything about it. My, how things change when the pressure is on. After finally admitting that White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler knew about the Inspector General investigation weeks before Lois Lerner and IRS Commissioner Steve Miller planted a question at a public event to apologize for its findings (and manipulate the coverage), we subsequently discovered that Ruemmler notified Barack Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough.
That prompted the question of when Obama himself was informed of the scandal, a question further provoked by Obama’s careful parsing of the question into an answer about when he found out the contents of the IG report. Today, the Washington Post offers up a more robust version of the White House’s latest limited hangout on the matter:
As soon as White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler heard about an upcoming inspector general’s report on the Internal Revenue Service, she knew she had a problem.
The notice Ruemmler saw on April 24 gave her a thumbnail sketch of a disturbing finding: that the IRS had improperly targeted tea party and other conservative groups. She shared the news with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior White House aides, who all recognized the danger of the findings.
But they agreed that it would be best not to share it with President Obama until the independent audit was completed and made public, in part to protect him from even the appearance of trying to influence an investigation. …
But Ruemmler and McDonough’s careful plan for the IRS was upended on May 10, when Lois Lerner, a senior official at the agency, broke the news by admitting that the IRS had given extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Senior White House officials were stunned to see the IRS trying to get ahead of its own story — and in doing so, creating a monstrous communications disaster for an administration that appeared not to know what its agencies were up to.
Does anyone else see the glaring contradictions in this narrative? First, according to the strategy as explained here, the decision was to share this conclusion among a wide variety of senior White House staffers — but keep the President in the dark so it didn’t appear he was interfering with a report that was already complete. Why wouldn’t that also apply to the senior staffers involved? After all, if the report was to be somehow quashed or skewed, Obama wouldn’t be the one to pick up the phone to do it — and risk getting impeached for obstruction of justice. It would be one of Obama’s senior aides making that call, up to and including McDonough, if it was to happen at all.
Second, according to this article, the strategy was to let the IRS publicize the report and then react to it. Then, suddenly, they’re shocked, shocked when the IRS publicizes it ahead of the release. It “upended” their “careful plan,” which apparently was to tell a bunch of people in the White House except the man in charge, and then stay quiet. How, then, did the release “upend” a “careful plan”?
But just how complete was the report when Ruemmler first learned of it? We already know that the investigation was completed almost a year ago, a few months before the election. The Daily Caller points to a number of meetings between Ruemmler and Treasury Counsel Christopher J. Meade last fall:
Although White House Chief Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler claims to have learned about the IRS audit scandal only last month, she had three unprecedented one-on-one meetings last year with the Treasury Department’s chief lawyer, who has known about the inspector general’s investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative nonprofits since at least June 2012. …
Christopher J. Meade, Treasury Chief Counsel, met with Ruemmler on September 27th, December 11th, and December 13th, 2012, according to White House Visitor Records requests. The two had never met one-on-one prior to these meetings. …
Meade was one of the first members of President Barack Obama’s administration to find out about the IRS investigation in June 2012, when he became the Treasury Department’s acting general counsel.
The two also met with fifteen other people on July 2nd, 2012 and with fifteen other people on July 17th.
The unusual timing of the meetings suggest that Ruemmler and potentially other White House members may have known of the IRS Inspector General Report months earlier than has been reported.
It’s possible the topic never came up, although that seems a little difficult to believe. The scope of the potential damage when it was revealed that the IRS had harassed filers on the basis of their political beliefs must have been obvious. That’s especially true of those who kept postponing the report, and the two IRS Commissioners who independently knew of the targeting but never bothered to inform Congress, even though Congress had previously demanded answers from both on the complaints. If Meade knew about the investigation, would he have just sat quietly through several meetings with the top lawyer in the White House and let his bosses get blindsided by it?
It’s possible, but … I wouldn’t bet in that direction.
Update: For some reason, I keep writing “Neil McDonough” when Obama’s CoS is Denis McDonough. I think I did that yesterday, too. I’ll go back and fix it if I did. It’s one of those name tics that I can’t shake for some reason, and I apologize for the error.
Update: The meetings started in the fall, not the summer.