Meet the Press   |  May 19, 2013

1: Pfeiffer, McConnell share opposing views on recent scandals

White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell visit Meet the Press to respectively advocate for and rail against the Obama administration.

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>>> this sunday, damage control by the white house on several fronts. how much harm will it do to the president's second term agenda? president obama under a cloud of scandal, as congress bears down on irs officials who targeted conservative groups.

>> this week confirms everything that the american public believes. this is a huge blow to the faith and trust the american people have in their government.

>> the key questions now -- who initiated the targeting and why? who else in the administration knew? and why was congress misinformed for so long? with us this morning, the president's senior adviser, dan pfeiffer , the republican leader in the senate, mitch mcconnell of kentucky, and the man leading a congressional investigation into the irs , chairman of the house ways and means committee , dave camp . and later the political fallout from benghazi and the justice department seizure of phone reports from the associated press. plus former secretary of defense donald rumsfeld returns to "meet the press." this time he's out of office and weighing in on the big issues in "rumsfeld's rules."

>> announcer: from nbc news in washington , the world's longest running television program, this is "meet the press" with david gregory .

>> good sunday morning. tough week for president obama . one columnist wondering if the president like president clinton before him could actually emerge stronger from all of this, while others see the swirl of the controversies making it stronger for the president to succeed with his second-term agenda. the president is going to address congratulations watts at moorehouse college this morning. and thursday he'll deliver a speech on counterterrorism. here this morning one of the men trying to direct a response to all of these controversy, the president's senior adviser, dan pfeiffer , a man who has been with the president since his 2008 campaign. good to have you here.

>> thank you for having me.

>> i've been reading that the white house wouldn't spend more than 10% on these controversies. jay carney , the president secretary, dismissed the idea these are scandals at all. is that the president's view that these are nothing more than minor distractions?

>> there's no question there's a very real problem at the irs . it's a problem that needs to be addressed and that it never happens again. that's why the president has asked for the resignation of the acting irs director and we appointed an acting commissioner and do a 30-day top-down review and make shoo this never happens and those who did wrong are held accountable.

>> you don't buy the theory there's a big cloud, scandal over this president sp.

>> no. we've seen this from the republicans before. they try to drag washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions. the president has business to do for the american people .

>> we're going to hear from dave camp , the acting official who is now dismissed. this is one of the things he said. i want to get your reaction.

>> listening to the nightly news, this appears to be an example of coverups and it seems like the truth is midden from the american people just long enough to make it through an election.

>> how do you react to that?

>> there's no evidence to support at that. the first time the white house was aware of this investigation was a few weeks ago when our office was notified it was happening. at that point, we had no idea what the facts were. congressman issa has been aware of this investigation since before the election. he didn't say anything publicly for very good reason. as he said, want to make sure you actually have facts before you raise allegations -- when you're talking about a nonpartisan entity like the irs .

>> but there was information during the course of the election year about potential targeting. do you not see the white house falling down on the job, the administration failing to look into something that is so incendiary?

>> it was looked into bit inspector general . that's how the process should work. now we have a report. the question is what are we going to do about that report?

>> could the administration have done something independent of what the inspector general is doing?

>> no, we have a cardinal rule in these situations, which is you don't interfere in an independent investigation, you don't do anything to give the appearance of interfering with an investigation. we took the exact right steps.

>> you talk about a gop play book. you made a comment that said " gop overreach" which was to michele bachmann . there isn't a weekend, she said, that hasn't gone by when people haven't asked me about impeaching obama . when you commented on that, is that you going on the offense saying this is the gop overreaching? or is this something you're actually concerned about?

>> there is no question that republicans are trying to make political hay here. we have to know what the facts are. if the independent inspector general report said two things that are very important, one, that there is no evidence that anyone outside of the irs influenced this conduct here and, two, that he did not believe there was political motivation. the conduct was outrageous and shouldn't have happened regardless of motivation but the idea to try to turn this into something -- congressman steve king from iowa, leading republican, said that benghazi was watergate and iran-contra times ten. everyone needs to take a deep breath and resolve the problem, not score political points.

>> should the president have known sooner about the irs ?

>> no. we do not do anything to give the appearance of interfering with an investigation. it would be a scandal if we were somehow involved with this or other things. we handled this the right way.

>> you're a communications professional as well. you never want a president of the united states coming out and saying i just learned about this from news reports. it doesn't look like someone is large and in charge --

>> in this situation that's exactly what you want. you don't want the president involved in an independent investigation with an agency with an independent stature like the irs . that would be inappropriate.

>> quasi independent. the treasury department does oversee this. this is not like interfering in a criminal investigation in justice, for example.

>> it's treated that way because a president once in a white house got involved in the irs and led to the great et ceteest political scandal in our history. the head of the irs was a bush appointee. and the acting commissioner was a career civil servant.

>> the other question is should congress have known more? were they repeatedly misinformed? look at this exchange questioning going on in march of 2012 . watch.

>> we've seen some recent press allegations that the irs is targeting certain tea party groups across the country, requesting what have been described as onerous document requests, delaying approval for tax exempt status . can you give us assurances that the irs is not targeting particular groups based on political leanings?

>> let me start by saying, yes, i can give you assurances. as you know, we pride ourselves on being a nonpolitical, nonpartisan organization. there's absolutely no targeting.

>> now that's not true. there's not evidence that mr. schulman did know at that point. why was congress repeatedly misinformed?

>> we learned congress was informed. congressman issa, who requested the original probe on this.

>> last fall?

>> last fall. and the congressman did an interview on monday where he said he was pretty much aware of what the report was going to say before it came out. so he was aware. now, i can't speak to what former director schulman knew. i think the acting commissioner former commissioner schulman . the acting commissioneri eriner talked about that.

>> and here was her argument, she said the media and congress are sleuthing for some hint that mr. obama picked up the phone and publicly suggest that conservative political groups were engaged in nefarious action. is that valid?

>> no. some republicans here are desperately looking to make political hay. don't take my word for it. take the word of the independent inspector general who said there was no evidence of influence outside of the irs led to this.

>> were the democrats pressuring the irs to look into some of these groups on either side, conservative or democrat?

>> there are people who have raised question about how these 501 c 4 organizations work.

>> i remember abu ghraib and people said abu ghraib happened in an atmosphere that was countenance by the administration . you have a president who is campaigning against these groups in many ways, campaigning against supreme court decisions that allowed these groups on the left and the right. is there anything valid about that?

>> i don't think so. i don't think that's what the inspector general found and this president finds this conduct deplorable. this should never happen again. this is a breach of the public trust . we have to work together to rebuild the trust.

>> let me ask you about benghazi , the attack on our consulate, four americans killed. the president is making it clear he thinks this is a political hit job by republicans . do you acknowledge any mistakes made in the course of communicating to the public by benghazi or respond together benghazi attack?

>> we acknowledge what happened in benghazi was a tragedy. the independent board led by it would have our leading nonpartisan figures, ambassador pickering and admiral mullen and they said there are a lot of steps to make sure this never happens again. here's the evidence that proves the republicans , playing politics with this. they received these e-mails months ago, didn't say a word about it, didn't complain, confirmed with the cia director right after that. and then last week a republican source provided to john carl of abc news a doctored version of an e-mail. y you know they're getting desperate here.

>> you have the president who claimed it was called an actor terror and the administration in terms of publicly of an interview he gave to cbs, in addition to what is going behind the scenes is doing his level best to take out reference to a particular terror group involved, to evidence of prior warnings of our security. there was an effort to either downplay this, critics would say, or to be very cautious at a time when a lot of information seemed to be known.

>> if you look at the e-mails, they tell you three things that are very important that undermine all the republicans allegations. first that the caallegations were not included. two references to the al qaeda were removed by intelligence community , not the cia and what we were trying to do was get it right based in a very challenging environment with shifting information, at the same time to protect the integrity of the investigation that was going to happen to ensure we brought justice to the people who committed this heinous act.

>> the phone record for the a.p. is an issue. the attorney general will stand by the white house fully?

>> the president has faith in attorney general holder. our cardinal rule is we don't get involved in independent investigations and this one of those. as a johnson principles, there are two things important we want to balance. one, national security leaks are dangerous. people that put the lives of our intelligence officers , our military at risk. but, two, we have to do it in a way in a balances freedom of press, which is why the president called on congress to pass the media shield law .

>> i wonder if the message to congress is put up or shut up. if you're going to criticize me for not being involved, why don't you put up a law that better protects journalists.

>> the president has wand this law for years, there's been republican opposition to it it. they've fierce advocacy of the press. this is an opportunity to do that.

>> i want to turn to senator mitch mcconnell of kentucky. welcome back.

>> good morning.

>> why don't you accept the word from not only white house officials but from former acting commercialer said there is not evidence of a political agenda ?

>> actually, there is a culture of intimidation throughout the administration . the irs is just the most recent example. let me recount a few for your audience. over at hhs in the obama care debate, the secretary sent out a directive saying they couldn't say what the policy would be. now they're trying to convince the public they should love obama care. at the fcc efforts by obama appointees to shut down or make difficult people who are seeking to buy advertising to criticize the administration . over at the sec the obama appointees have been engaged in an effort to make it difficult for corporations to exercise their first amendment political rights . the irs coming back to the irs , the head of the union at the irs gives 99% of her campaign money to democrats. she openly criticizes the republican house for trying to reduce government spending and has specifically targeted tea party groups in her public comments. it's no wonder that the agents in the irs sort of get the message the president demonizes his opponent, the head of their union --

>> senator, that's a leap can you make as argument but you don't have fact to back it up. you can create -- i asked dan pfeiffer about it. can you talk about a culture. do you have any evidence that the president of the united states directed what you call a culture of intimidation at the irs to target political opponents?

>> i don't think we know what the facts are.

>> that hasn't stopped you from accusing.

>> we're talking about an attitude the government knows best, the nanny state is here to tell us what to do and if you start criticizing, you get targeted.

>> let me stop you for a minute.

>> david , let me finish. david , let me finish. the investigation has just begun. i'm not going to reach a conclusion about what we may find, but what we do know happened is they were targeting tea party groups. we know that.

>> we do know that. the question is how it initiated, who initiated it and how high that goes.

>> sure. that's why you have investigations.

>> right. it interesting. the larger issue here, as some have point issed out, is the exist of the 501 c 4 groups. they are involved in politics but they're also involved in some kind of social good. i guess that's in the eye of the beholder . you were asked about this issue way back in 1987 . i want to play for you what you said then and ask you if it's resonant today.

>> there are restrictions now on the kinds of activities that, for example, a 501-c3 and 4 organizations can engage in. they're being abused not just by people on the right but most of the so-called charitable organizations who are involved in political activity in this country who are, in my judgment, involved in arguable violations of their tax-free status and violations of the campaign laws happen to be groups on the left. so that is a problem.

>> so that was a problem then and some are arguing it a problem now as well. out of all of this do you see more tax reform that addresses whether any of these groups should be tax exempt ?

>> it's not whether you have to go back 25 years to find a quote. what we have seen here is an effort on the part of the government to make it difficult for citizens to get organized and to express themselves. there's an effort here also to make sure that you can get their donor list or their membership list. it's reminiscent of naacp versus alabama back in 1958 where the state of alabama tried to get the membership and donor list of the naacp. the supreme court said under the first amendment freedom of association you can't have it. there's an of the here in congress called a disclose act to try to get at the donors of these groups. i was wrong 25 years ago, i've been right for the last two decades. the government should not be trying to intimidate citizens who criticize the government from exercising their first amendment rights. and that's what is at the heart of this and that's what the irs apparently was doing by making it difficult for citizens to get a legitimate tax exempt status .

>> i'm saying should these groups if they're that politically involved, and that's what you identified 25 years ago, if they're that politically involved, they shouldn't have tax exempt status . should the tax code be simpler in this arena to eliminate these questions?

>> no. i think the citizens groups have a right to organize, express themselves and not have their donor list subject to political supervision. it clear now that the reason these donor lists and donors are trying to be revealed is so the federal government can target them and shut them up.

>> let me ask you about these a.p. phone records. this is probably one area where i imagine you would actually be supportive of what the administration has done, despite some of the criticism because you've expressed your outrage in the past and you've pushed for an investigation of national security leaks.

>> actually, i do think these national security leaks are very important and it looks to me like this is an investigation that needs to happen because national security leaks, of course, can get our agents overseas killed.

>> so you don't think that this is a scandal plaguing the administration and are you supportive of eric holder as attorney general in light of all of this?

>> what i am supportive of is investigating national security leaks that endanger americans around the world.

>> so would this qualify, this seizure of a.p. phone records?

>> what i -- we don't know yet what has happened here. what i do think is that national security leaks that endanger americans around the world are a serious matter.

>> i'm just asking, you have no reason then to doubt or do you what the attorney general did actually did endanger lives in this case in.

>> what i'm saying is national security leaks that endanger americans around the world are a serious matter.

>> including this one?

>> any time you're leaking national security information, if it endangers americans around the world, eight serious matter.

>> i think it's clear what you're saying. i want to move on to benghazi and questions republicans have been asking about this. if you look at this as objectively as you can, it appears to be an episode on the failure of the administration to adequately secure an overseas outpost, diplomatic compound at a time of war when we have been involved in getting rid of gadhafi in libya and perhaps at the very worst some effort by the administration to spin what the actual cause was of the attack. why does it go anywhere beyond that?

>> well, that's not insignificant. i mean, the fact that the personnel there were not adequately secured is not insignificant.

>> right.

>> clearly we didn't have enough security there to protect our ambassador and the people on the ground there.

>> but republicans are talking about a massive coverup. the president has said that's very significant but republicans are talking about a massive coverup, they're talking about impeachment. i mean, all of these things that seem sort of over the top with regard to what's happening here.

>> i don't think i've said any of those things. i think you're talking about others may have said various things about this. let me tell you what i think about it. it's clear that there was inadequate security there and it's very clear that it was inconvenient within six weeks of the election for the administration to, in effect, announce that it was a terrorist attack . i think that's worth examining. it is going to be examined. and it's important, you know, this is the first time we've had an ambassador killed in the line of duty since the late 70s.

>> you are the one of the leading republicans in america. would you call on republicans who talk about impeaching the president or who talk about this as an nixonian style coverup with regard to benghazi , would you like them to stop it?

>> what i think we ought to do is complete the investigation and find out what exactly happened. and i think we have a sense of what happened. . we know there was inadequate security, we know an american ambassador and three other brave americans got killed, and we know the administration kind of made up a tale here in order to make it seem like it wasn't a terrorist attack . i think that's worthy of investigation and the investigations ought to go forward.

>> but do you have specific evidence that they made up a tale or was it based on information they had at the time?

>> well, the talking points clearly were not accurate. and i think getting to the bottom of that is an important investigation.

>> i just want to come back to this because i think it important, you made a point of saying what you have not said about all of this. there are republicans in an organized fashion, of accusing the president of being nixonian, comparing it to water. isn't that overblown?

>> i think it's important there is an investigation under way.

>> rand paul says benghazi should disqualify hillary clinton from being president. is that your view?

>> the 2016 elections are way too far away.

>> my question stands.

>> we're in the process of investigating a number of different investigations, all of these things are important to take a look at and we're going to do that.

>> do you think that hillary clinton was culpable for what happened in benghazi ?

>> i think we'll find out when the investigation is completed who did what and who knew what and when.

>> will this -- these issues, all of them, two of them that you are concerned about, will they be fodder for your campaign next year? do you think it important for republicans to campaign on these issues to target president obama and democrats?

>> you know, i don't know what the issue will be next year. if i were predicting what's likely to be the biggest issue in the 2014 election, i think it would be obama care. i think it's coming back big time . and by the way, the irs has a role to play in the implementation of obama care, which is another reason why if we have the opportunity to do it, we ought to pull it out root and branch , the single worst piece of legislation that's been passed in modern times in this country and the american people are beginning to learn as the premiums go up, as jobs are lost, the full effect of this on our slow growth economy has been enormous. i think that's likely, frankly, david , to be the biggest issue in 2014 . there may be others. and some of these issues may arise as well.

>> leader mcconnell, i always appreciate you coming back to answer the questions you like and the ones you don't like as well. i appreciate it. we'll see you soon.

>> thanks. coming up here the man leading the investigation into the irs on capitol hill said friday that the recent revelations about the agency are just the tip of the iceberg , so what more is there? we'll get reaction too to dan pfeiffer from dave camp , chairman of the house and ways committee, will be here. plus, our political roundtable on the larger political implications of all of this chairman of the democratic caucus , congressman xavier becerra , columnist for the wall street journal peggy noonan , and a man who's no stranger to scandal in washington , the washington post 's bob woodward .later my conversation with former secretary of defense don rumsfeld , he joins me live. it's all coming up here on meet the press. announcer: meet the press is brought to you by northern trust , providing solid financial solutions for more than 123 years.