IRS scandal evolving too fast for reporters to ignore

A handful of former IRS executive Lois Lerner’s emails released by the House Ways and Means Committee seem to be serving as a Rorschach test for political actors and members of the press alike. For some, the early reaction to those emails revealed more about an individual’s thinking about the IRS scandal, and the Republican-led House committees, than it did about the alleged misconduct of one of the country’s most powerful law enforcement agencies.

On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee released emails sent by Lois Lerner to a colleague reveal that she received information about Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) which led her to inquire about referring him and an unnamed organization soliciting him for a paid speech for an audit. After somehow receiving an event invitation meant for Grassley in which the event planners offered to pay for the senator’s wife to attend, Lerner asked her colleague if she could take action on the apparent infraction.

“Looked like they were inappropriately offering to pay for his wife,” Lerner observed in a message to her colleague, Matthew Giuliano.

Giuliano replied by informing Lerner that, not only was it not an infraction but that the incident she wanted to investigate had not yet even occurred. Partisan conservatives and liberals jumped on the email exchange, each using it to support their preconceived conclusions about the IRS scandal. But the emails inspired more questions than they provided answers.

Powerline Blog’s John Hinderaker cautioned conservatives to keep their powder dry. He wrote that Lerner did not appear to be looking to target Grassley specifically, but rather the organization which was holding the event to which he was invited. “Maybe this is an instance of Lerner being trigger-happy when it comes to going after conservative c3s and c4s,” he wrote, noting that the organization’s name was redacted from the released emails. “We can’t judge that without knowing more about the organization.”

“I don’t see any indication that she wanted to throw a Republican senator in jail, and in the absence of more information, I don’t see any evidence that she wanted to persecute a conservative organization, either,” Hinderaker continued.

This is not to say that there is nothing curious about this email exchange. It does suggest that Lerner had what you might call an itchy trigger finger, particularly when it comes to conservatives. Furthermore, in conjunction with the revelation that Lerner half-joked with colleagues about taking a position with the repurposed Obama campaign organization Organizing for Action, it does indicate that Lerner frequently deferred to her partisan instincts.

Over at The Federalist, Sean Davis expressed frustration at those members of the political media establishment who were dismissing the relevance of this disclosure. He specifically cites Slate’s David Weigel who seemed unconcerned about the revelations in this email in part because Lerner did not act on her apparent desire to audit either Grassley or the unnamed group that corresponded with him.

“Intimidation is only wrong once its threats are carried out,” Davis wrote sarcastically. “Abuse of power only counts as abuse when you can find a visible bruise.”

It is hard to fault Davis here for expressing his indignation over some prominent reporters’ seemingly boundless ability to extend those in positions of authority the benefit of the doubt. It becomes more difficult to attribute Weigel’s instinctive dismissal of the latest revelations about the IRS to the languid cynicism that so often accompanies proximity to Washington when one sees that his colleagues in the political press do not share his indifference.

“This does not help her case, which is already pretty bad to begin with,” CNN’s John King observed on Thursday.

“It fuels the speculation that there was actually a political witch-hunt which was motivated by politics,” Politico’s Manu Raju agreed. “It’s exactly what the administration does not want.”

“Makes it hard for the White House to say ‘This is Republicans trying to make a big partisan issue out of a mistake,’” King noted.

“And it raises the question of if this is something that’s in the emails that we have, what’s in the emails that have disappeared, that don’t exist anymore?” Associated Press reporter Julie Pace observed. “And it provides some actual tangible fodder for these hearings that are going to be happening on the Hill.”

Pace’s point is the most important. The emails themselves are not especially damning, but they support the central narrative surrounding the IRS scandal; namely, that political considerations came into play in the application of tax law. Moreover, this email exchange validates the concerns of those who wonder whether Lerner’s missing emails contain information critical to the investigation into this scandal.

It is events like these lead nearly three quarters of the country to support the congressional investigation into the IRS’s alleged abuses. Those in the press like Weigel who reacted with reflexive nonchalance to the latest emails now appear to be out on a limb. The slow drip of developments surrounding the IRS scandal is growing into a torrent, and events are happening faster than they can be explained away.