They’ve been given an inch – can they take a mile?
The national controversy involving revelations that the IRS has subjected conservative groups to extra scrutiny in their applications for tax-exempt status has evolved into a fill-in-the-blanks scandal for Republicans, who have substituted their own narrative for every gap in the Obama administration’s explanation for the abuses.
Though the available evidence suggests the IRS fiasco is more an outgrowth of incompetence and mismanagement within the agency than a nefarious plot by President Barack Obama to target his political enemies, there are enough blind spots in the administration’s explanations to give Republicans enough of a pretext to float theories of much broader, more insidious scandals.
“One of the things I want to know is everybody that had a significant income that contributed to Romney, I want to know what their audit rate was,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said on “Morning Joe” on Thursday. “Because the indications are out of Oklahoma right now that if you happen to be a conservative and are wealthy and gave to Romney, you got an audit where you’ve never gotten an audit before.”
(A spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, R, tweeted that his office was fielding similar reports out of Texas.)
The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, took to the floor of the Senate on Thursday to assert that it is “clear” that the IRS targeting goes well beyond rogue officials. (In a separate op-ed for the Washington Post, McConnell asserted that efforts sought by Democrats – legislatively and through the Federal Election Commission – to force shadowy political groups to disclose their donors were akin to the IRS targeting.)
"The facts we've seen so far point to something far more systemic than that. And it shouldn't surprise anybody,” McConnell said.
As of now, there is little more than anecdotal evidence to support an assertion that the targeting of conservatives within the IRS extends beyond processing applications for tax-exempt status. And even then, the IRS inspector general who conducted the investigation into those abuses, J. Russell George, told congressional hearings over the past week that his audit uncovered no evidence that partisanship had fueled the abuses, or that any outside official directed IRS officials to target conservative groups.
But IRS officials’ own accounting for the abuses at the agency and the Obama administration’s own confused explanation about its own knowledge of the controversy have injected enough gray area for Republicans to use. And it adds to an existing feeding frenzy about Benghazi, and the administration’s work to monitor journalists’ activities in a leak investigation.
The decision on Wednesday by Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of the tax-exempt division, to invoke her Fifth Amendment right to not offer self-incriminating testimony obviously offered GOP lawmakers something to latch onto. The clearly inept performances by former commissioners Steven Miller and Douglas Shulman, both of whom denied having any prior knowledge of the abuses of conservatives, and failed to act on any preliminary indication of the misconduct that crossed their desk, has also been easy fodder.
The White House – largely by its own admission at this point – similarly botched the manner in which it explained its own knowledge of the scandal. White House press secretary Jay Carney was forced to revise the administration’s explanation several times over; it was only this week when he acknowledged that the White House learned of the scandal in late April through White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler, who conveyed the information to senior staff, but not the president himself.
“It's pretty inconceivable to me that the president wouldn't know,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said during an interview Wednesday night on Fox News.
The irony, of course, is that top Republicans are making these allegations just as they openly admit at the same time that they lack any evidence whatsoever of presidential involvement in the IRS’s actions.
“We don’t have anything to say that the president knew about this. In fact, he says he learned about it on television,” Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“That may be the case,” Camp added. “But we need to know who started this and why it was allowed to continue for so long.”
And as recently as Thursday, as top Republicans continued to voice their conspiracy theories about the IRS, Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, Republicans’ chief deputy whip, conceded again there’s no evidence that Obama had been involved in the IRS abuses.
“There’s no evidence that leads it to the Oval Office,” he said on “Daily Rundown” on Thursday. “And I think this is a situation where we need to be very careful and get the facts out and not come to conclusions and speculations before the facts speak for themselves.”
This story was originally published on Fri May 24, 2013 1:17 PM EDT