Obama's stonewall irks critics
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration failed to escape mounting criticism on three fronts on Thursday and appeared to be hurting itself by providing no answers in any of the controversies.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, suggested the White House had violated the public's trust, and he promised to “stop at nothing” to hold the administration accountable.
President Obama, seeking to regain his footing, named a temporary chief for the Internal Revenue Service and pressed Congress to approve new security money to prevent other Benghazi-style terrorist attacks.
The efforts did little to satisfy Republicans, who claim illegalities in some of the controversies and see an opportunity to derail Obama's second-term agenda.
And Obama did not help himself when he failed to answer a Bloomberg reporter's question on perhaps the most damaging controversy, the IRS efforts to control political groups. He was asked if he could state that no one in the White House knew of the IRS involvement before the story broke.
Obama skirted the question by answering that he did not know anything about “the IG (Inspector General) report before the report had been leaked to the press.” He made no mention of anyone else in the White House.
“Nothing dissolves the bonds between the people and their government like the arrogance of power here in Washington,” Boehner said. “And that's what the American people are seeing today from the Obama administration — remarkable arrogance.”
The targeting of conservative political groups by the IRS and new questions about the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year — along with the Justice Department's seizure of journalists' phone records — have consumed the White House for nearly a week. Of the three controversies, the president's advisers rank the IRS matter as the most likely to linger. At least three congressional committees are planning investigations into the agency that touches the lives of nearly every American. No explanation of the Benghazi situation has been made since September.
“There is something profoundly un-American about targeting your political opponents,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential 2016 presidential candidate, told a crowd of about 100 Tea Party enthusiasts outside the Capitol.
No special prosecutor
Obama, who was criticized by both opponents and allies for his measured initial response to the IRS targeting, vowed to ensure the agency acts “scrupulously and without even a hint of bias.”
“I think we're going to be able to figure out exactly what happened, who was involved, what went wrong, and we're going to be able to implement steps to fix it,” Obama said at a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Soon afterward, Obama appointed senior budget official Danny Werfel to run the IRS temporarily one day after Acting Commissioner Steven Miller's forced resignation. The White House is expected to nominate a permanent commissioner later this year.
“No one in their right mind would want the job right now,” said Paul Streckfus, a tax journalist who used to work in the IRS division that is now at the center of the scandal.
However, the president knocked down the prospect of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS, saying the congressional investigations and a separate Justice Department probe should be enough to nail down who was responsible for improperly targeting Tea Party groups when they applied for tax-exempt status.
Obama and Erdogan were questioned during a light but steady rain during the outdoor event. As the rain picked up, the president summoned a pair of Marine Corps guards to provide umbrellas for Erdogan and himself, joking, “I've got a change of suits, but I don't know about our prime minister.”
Secrecy vs. right to know
The news conference marked Obama's first comments on the government's widely criticized seizure of telephone records of reporters and editors of The Associated Press in an investigation of news leaks. The president spoke of the importance of striking a balance between “secrecy and the right to know” but said he would make no apologies for trying to protect classified information that could put Americans at risk.
“I've still got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, and I've still got a whole bunch of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations,” he said. “Part of my job is to make sure that we're protecting what they do, while still accommodating for the need for information.”
The president said he continues to have confidence in Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been the target of intense criticism from lawmakers after the phone record subpoenas were made public, but who, like Obama on all subjects, does not admit to knowing about the subpoenas.
The IRS and Justice Department controversies have coincided with a revival in the GOP-led investigations into the September attacks in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
Obama, who angrily cast the investigations as a “sideshow” this week, tried to turn the focus to Congress. He urged lawmakers to provide more money to strengthen security at U.S. diplomatic missions around the world.
“We need to come together and truly honor the sacrifice of those four courageous Americans and better secure our diplomatic posts around the world,” Obama said. “That's how we learn the lessons of Benghazi. That's how we keep faith with the men and women who we send overseas to represent America.”