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First Thoughts: Then there were three

Then there were three controversies for the Obama administration… The latest: AP says Justice Department secretly obtained two months of phone records in possible leak case… Latest developments with the IRS story… Why did the IRS focus on the small fish -- but not the big ones?... Obama outraged by IRS story, as well as Benghazi “sideshow”… Some perspective, per Charlie Cook: Much of the outrage right now is selective outrage… Dems put changing the filibuster back on the table?... Rubio PAC airs TV ad defending Ayotte … And Christie goes negative.

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks at a Democratic fundraiser in New York City, May 13, 2013.

*** Then there were three: Finding itself already under siege on two different fronts -- the Benghazi and IRS stories -- the Obama administration now encounters a third controversy, and this one features one of the most influential news organizations in the world. The Associated Press revealed yesterday afternoon that the Justice Department “secretly obtained two months of telephone records” of AP reporters and editors “in what the news cooperative's top executive called a ‘massive and unprecedented intrusion’ into how news organizations gather the news.” Per NBC’s Michael Isikoff, DOJ confirmed that it obtained these phone records without notifying the news organization, saying the step was needed to avoid "a substantial threat to the integrity" of an ongoing leak investigation. When it rains, it pours, as the conservative Drudge Report gleefully notes. While this Justice Department move is sweeping, chilling for journalists (why didn’t DOJ attempt to negotiate?), and an apparent attempt to intimidate future leakers, let’s don’t forget that Congress asked the Obama administration to investigate all the national-security leaks. “Republicans accused the administration of deliberately leaking classified information, jeopardizing national security in an effort to make Mr. Obama look tough in an election year — a charge the White House rejected. But some Democrats, too, said the leaking of sensitive information had gotten out of control,” the New York Times says.

*** Three makes it harder: While the president’s defiant tone on Benghazi probably would have been enough to quell things under normal circumstances, the times aren’t normal right now. The rule of three (toss in IRS and AP) means the president’s credibility is truly on the line right now with the public. No amount of denial or outrage will be as persuasive to the public right now and the president’s political foes know it. And that’s why you saw some senators yesterday going even further, hitting the White House on the implementation of health care or Mitch McConnell who attempted to use the IRS news to connect the dots and claim a concerted effort was taking place all over the government to target conservatives or limit freedoms. Many of these charges are baseless but the environment right now for the White House is a mess and they are in a position where it’ll be a lot easier for issues to stick to them. The Teflon is wearing off. 

President Barack Obama made no explicit mention of the three major controversies surrounding his administration when meeting with supporters on Monday night. Instead, he expressed his frustration that his legislative agenda is stuck in neutral. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports and NBC's Pete Williams joins the conversation.

*** Latest developments with the IRS story: The IRS controversy is only growing as more organizations come forward about exactly how the IRS went about investigating conservative groups. The Washington Post: “Internal Revenue Service officials in Washington and at least two other offices were involved with investigating conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status… IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations.” (However, it’s unclear in the story if these Washington employees were only targeting conservative groups or if they were scrutinizing a wider scope of groups applying for tax-exempt status.) What’s more, Politico notes That the IRS’s acting commissioner “first learned about the agency’s targeting of conservative political groups more than a year ago, the agency revealed Monday.” As for the White House, the president claimed he only heard about the IRS story when it went public on Friday. Jay Carney later said, the White House Counsel’s office was made aware of the IG investigation in late April but that the president was NOT informed at the time and that the Counsel’s office wasn’t told many specifics about the report.   

*** Focusing on the small fish -- but not the big ones: Also regarding the IRS story, the New York Times’ Confessore makes a great point: While the IRS scrutinized relatively small conservative-sounding groups in their application for tax-exempt 501c4 status, the agency has hardly lifted a finger when it comes to the bigger political players. “The I.R.S. has done little to regulate a flood of political spending by larger groups — like Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, co-founded by Mr. Rove, and Priorities USA, with close ties to President Obama… ‘We’ve complained about a few big fish and we’ve heard nothing from the I.R.S.,’ said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, which filed many of the complaints with the agency. ‘We would far rather see scrutiny of these big fish — the groups that spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence elections — than to see the resources spent on hundreds of small groups that appeared to spend very little on elections.’” One of the unintended consequences of this IRS story: It probably will set back any effort to close the loopholes that allow overtly political organizations to obtain tax-exempt status and to shield their donors.

*** Obama outraged by IRS actions and Benghazi “sideshow”: In his news conference with British Prime Minister Cameron yesterday, President Obama called the IRS story “outrageous,” saying: “If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that had been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous and there's no place for it. And they have to be held fully accountable.” But in the outrage department, the president got a lot more animated when the topic turned to Benghazi, making it clear he believes it’s nothing more than a partisan sideshow. “The whole issue of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow. What we have been very clear about throughout was that immediately after this event happened we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had occurred, what the motivations were. It happened at the same time as we had seen attacks on U.S. embassies in Cairo as a consequence of this film. And nobody understood exactly what was taking place during the course of those first few days.”

*** Dems put changing the filibuster back on the table? Largely lost by all the Benghazi/IRS/AP coverage has been this fact: Senate Republicans have used procedural tactics to so far block many of Obama’s nominees, including his picks to head the Labor Department and EPA. That has spurred Democrats and their allies to reconsider ways to change the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, which has been used for even the most routine of measures. The Hill: “Senate Democrats frustrated with the GOP’s blocking of a string of President Obama’s nominees are seriously weighing a controversial tactic known as the ‘nuclear option.’ The option — which would involve Democrats changing Senate rules through a majority vote to prevent the GOP from using the 60-vote filibuster to block nominations — was raised during a private meeting Wednesday involving about 25 Democratic senators and a group of labor leaders.” Remember, it was that same “nuclear” option threat that spurred Senate Democrats and Republicans to reach the “Gang of 14” compromise to approve some of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

*** It’s the eye of the beholder: That said, political analyst Charlie Cook provides an important historical perspective: Right now, much of the controversy the White House is facing is selective outrage. “Whether the White House is in Democratic or Republican hands, we have to put up with a degree of selective outrage from one side and the turning of a blind eye from the other,” Cook writes. “Democrats who were quick to pounce on any possible transgression during George W. Bush’s presidency are noticeably quiet these days. At the same time, one wonders whether the same Republicans who are frothing over Benghazi would have been quite as vigilant had they been in Congress after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983, which killed 220 U.S. Marines, 18 sailors, and three Army soldiers.” And that selective outrage makes many of the “Nixon” comparisons seem VERY premature right now. Regarding Nixon, Watergate, and that administration’s cover-ups, the condemnation -- of activity that went straight to the top -- was bipartisan.

*** Rubio PAC airs TV ad defending Ayotte: We’ve been covering politics for a while, but we don’t think we’ve ever seen this -- a possible presidential candidate’s PAC airing a TV ad to help a COLLEAGUE who represents an early-nominating state. “Sen. Marco Rubio's political action committee is going up with a TV ad defending New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte's votes on gun control. ‘Safety, security, family - no one understands these things like a mom, and no one works harder for them than this one,’ the ad says, showing a photo of Ayotte. ‘A former prosecutor, Kelly Ayotte knows how to reduce gun violence.’”

*** Christie goes negative: And it’s rare you see this, too: A political candidate who’s leading his opponent by 30-plus points is going negative. But that’s exactly what New Jersey Chris Christie is doing with this new TV ad. As Politico writes, “Sky-high approval ratings be damned — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is going on air next week with an ad that paints his Democratic rival Barbara Buono as a tax-hiker who is yoked to unpopular former governor Jon Corzine, POLITICO has learned.The spot, which begins running Monday, is part of an $800,000 ad buy over the course of roughly a week.” Per last week’s NBC/Marist poll, Christie was leading Barbara Buono 60%-28% among registered voters.

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