Until a few weeks ago, only the most die-hard political geeks would have known the name Kathryn Ruemmler or her position as White House counsel. These days, she’s becoming more and more famous, and that might be by design. The Washington Post highlights her role in the IRS scandal, in which the top lawyer in the West Wing is purported to have played goalie with information in order to ensure plausible deniability:
Until this week, the story of how White House officials learned that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting conservative groups was fairly straightforward. White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was notified in late April that a Treasury Department inspector general’s audit of the IRS was nearing completion. The president, officials said, didn’t find out about any of it until May 10, when it became public.
he implication was that Ruemmler was told in general terms about the report and that the information was kept within her office. But over the past few days, officials have offered a more detailed description of what really happened. Ruemmler was informed that political targeting had taken place and shared that information with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and some others on the senior staff. And there were subsequent discussions between White House and Treasury officials about the report.
But no one shared any of this information with the president. Why? White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday that Ruemmler had recommended not doing so. “In these situations,” he said, “the counsel made the decision that this is not the kind of thing that you notify the president of, of an investigation that’s not complete, because it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so.”
Some lawyers agree with that position. But is that the way a White House should work? Most previous administrations had an unwritten rule: the doctrine of no surprises. The president should not be kept in the dark about impending problems, particularly ones that are potentially explosive politically.
At a minimum, according to some officials who served in past administrations, someone, presumably the chief of staff, would give the president a quiet heads-up about something as charged as political malfeasance at the IRS. Not because the president could or should do anything to interfere with the investigation, but as a warning to be prepared. And to be able to answer the question of what the president knew and when.
This isn’t the only context in which Ruemmler seems to be taking the blame for the President knowing nothing about what happens in his own administration — and even in his own White House. BuzzFeed’s sources are also tossing Ruemmler’s name around as a shield for Obama:
BuzzFeed has learned that key members of President Obama’s national security team, including deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, pushed to release a comprehensive timeline of events documenting the attack that would also synthesize the views of the various government agencies into one report. The CIA also wanted the White House to put out such a timeline, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
Those plans were quashed, however, when the White House Counsel’s office, which is led by Kathryn Ruemmler, advised the officials to not release any information to the public out of fear it could be used against them in any subsequent investigations and other legal complications.
The White House told BuzzFeed any suggestion that Ruemmler shot down the release of the Benghazi timeline was “off base” — but an official said the White House would not comment “on leaks out of purported internal deliberations.”
BuzzFeed’s sources said the legal advice proved frustrating for a number of officials in the president’s orbit, who felt they would have better served to put to rest controversy that has lasted nine months.
“It was aggravating,” one administration official said. “It comes back to Kathryn Ruemmler, Kathyrn Ruemmler, Kathryn Ruemmler. I hate to say it, as it sounds like piling on, but it’s on her doorstep too.”
Who might be floating Ruemmler’s name for the under-bus treatment? More than one person has noted that the leak to BuzzFeed makes Ben Rhodes look a lot better as the champion of transparency.
On the other hand, perhaps this is legitimate. We only have a few posts before this month that mention Ruemmler, but almost all of them have to do with blocking transparency — on Operation Fast and Furious and on Solyndra, mainly:
- Video: Working-class hero celebrates legality of gigantic regressive new “tax”
- Open thread: Mandate-mas II, the Revenge; Update: No life sentence without parole for juveniles; Update: Key part of SB1070 upheld … for now; Update: Mandate-mas definitely on Thursday
- Quotes of the Day
- Chaffetz: Why won’t the White House let us talk to Fast & Furious witness?
- WH: We still have confidence in Donald Verilli
- Friday night dump: More Solyndra docs, subpoena “rebuffed”
- New e-mails reveal: White House did meet with top donor on Solyndra
- Obama administration rejects House subpoena on Solyndra
- Friday night F&F document dump shows “extensive” communication with White House
All of a sudden on both IRS and Benghazi, we’ve gone from “the White House knew nothing” to “It comes back to Kathryn Ruemmler, Kathyrn Ruemmler, Kathryn Ruemmler.” I hate to say it, but I doubt it really stops there. The function of a chief counsel in any organization is to make sure that the top executives know about legal (and political) dangers before they blindside the bosses. Anyone who thinks that the chief counsels in both the IRS and the White House knew of wrongdoing and didn’t advise the top executive in each case knows little about the function and purpose of that position in the first place.