Over the past month, the White House has battled four different controversies, which have stung President Barack Obama, knocked him off message, and taken a toll on Americans’ trust in their institutions.
But according to the evidence so far, only one of them goes all the way to the top to the president himself: complaints about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs.
Ironically, many of the president’s chief Republican critics have embraced those programs, which could make it harder for the GOP in the long term to score political points on the issue.
“I believe we should be listening to terrorists, known terrorist emails, following their emails and following their phone calls,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said recently. “We need this program.”
At the same time, however, the revelation of these programs has angered Republican-leaning libertarians, as well as some liberal Democrats who are themselves part of the president’s base.
“I don't think collecting millions and millions of Americans' phone calls, now this is the metadata, this is time, place, to whom you direct the calls, is making us any safer,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said on NBC's “Meet the Press.”
For his part, Obama has embraced a national debate of these programs -- even if that conversation wouldn’t have existed without the leak of these secret programs to the news media.
“We do have to strike a balance, and we do have to be cautious about how our governments are operating when it comes to intelligence,” he said on Wednesday at a news conference with Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel. “And so this is a debate that I welcome.”
No evidence yet that IRS, Benghazi, and leak investigations go to the top
By comparison, the other three controversies -- concerning the IRS, the drafting of talking points on the terrorist attack in Benghazi and leak investigations involving journalists -- have yet to show a direct tie to the president or wrongdoing among his top political advisers, despite Republican efforts to prove otherwise.
In fact, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released testimony on Tuesday from a Cincinnati-based IRS front-line manager who appeared to dismiss the idea that the White House played a role in the agency’s targeting of conservative-sounding groups applying for tax-exempt status.
From the transcript of congressional investigators’ interview with this IRS employee, John Shafer, who described himself as a conservative Republican:
Q: Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to screen Tea Party cases?
A: I have no reason to believe that.
Q: Do you have any reason to believe that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to centralize the review of Tea Party cases?
A: I have no reason to believe that.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, howled at the release of the testimony. “I am deeply disappointed that Ranking Member Cummings has decided to broadly disseminate and post online a 205 page transcript that will serve as a roadmap for IRS officials to navigate investigative interviews with Congress,” he said.
Republicans also point to the IRS employee’s testimony that his answers “no reason to believe that” meant “no personal knowledge.”
But Shafer’s testimony confirmed the finding from the inspector general’s report on the IRS controversy, which concluded that the targeting wasn’t “influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS.”
Meanwhile, when it comes to the drafting of talking points after the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, congressional Republicans now have focused more on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her State Department, especially after the White House released the actual emails developing those talking points.
And the leak investigations involving journalists point to the Justice Department, not the White House.
“The president and White House have been cabined-off from any wrongdoing here,” a White House official tells First Read. “And nothing in the facts so far contradicts that.”
But that doesn’t exonerate White House aides from making a series of missteps in handling these controversies -- whether it was not being initially forthcoming about when it knew about the inspector general’s report into the IRS targeting or suggesting that a single adjustment was made to the Benghazi talking points (when more than one was made).
GOP: 'There is still information we need'
While a top Republican House aide admits that it’s “very possible” the IRS, Benghazi and leak-investigation controversies don’t go all the way up to the president, the aide says, “There is still information we need.”
“Let the facts take us where they will,” the aide adds.
The GOP aide goes on to say that the Republican Party’s goal with these investigations has never been to get an immediate touchdown. “We are content to get three yards on a play.”
Here is a status update on the four controversies over the past month:
On May 10, IRS official Lois Lerner, a civil servant, revealed that the agency had targeted conservative-sounding groups applying for tax-exempt status. An inspector general’s report confirmed that finding, but it also concluded that the targeting wasn’t “influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS.”
After the revelation, Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller announced his resignation; Obama appointed top budget official Danny Werfel to head the agency; and Lerner was placed on administrative leave (after invoking the 5th Amendment to a congressional committee).
More recently, Rep. Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released partial testimony from Cincinnati-based IRS employees contending that Washington officials played a role in the targeting. But those Washington officials have never been tied to the Obama White House or its political team. What’s more, Ranking Member Cummings released testimony showing a conservative IRS employee declaring that the White House had no role in the targeting.
On the same day that Lerner first said the IRS had targeted conservative-sounding groups, ABC News reported on edits that the State Department and Obama administration had made to the “talking points” describing the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The edits included removing references to Ansar al-Sharia to not hinder the investigation into the attack, and changing a reference to the Benghazi location as a "mission" or "diplomatic post," rather than a consulate.
But when the White House released the actual emails, they revealed more agency politics (between the State Department and CIA) than electoral politics (which Republican critics had alleged). In fact, the emails showed White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes urging his colleagues to ensure they had the right information. "There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed," Rhodes wrote. “Insofar as we have firmed up assessments that don't compromise intel or the investigation, we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression.
Republicans, however, pointed their finger at the State Department for wanting to change the talking points.“The seemingly political nature of the State Department’s concerns raises questions about the motivations behind these changes and who at the State Department was seeking them,” said a spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
After the IRS and Benghazi stories surfaced last month, The Associated Press revealed that the Justice Department secretly obtained phone records of AP reporters and editors in pursuing a national-security leak. Then another story dropped: The Justice Department labeled a Fox News reporter as a “co-conspirator” in a separate leak case.
After criticism of the Justice Department’s actions, President Obama called for Congress to pass a media-shield law, and he also instructed the Justice Department to conduct a review of guidelines about investigations regarding reporters -- due to the president by July 12. “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs,” Obama said in his national-security speech last month. “Our focus must be on those who break the law.”
On June 5, Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian newspaper reported that the U.S. government has collected American’s phone records and other meta-data, and the government later revealed it was part of a National Security Agency program dating back to 2006. The Guardian and Washington Post later reported on a different surveillance program that gathers foreign intelligence through information from electronic sources, including major Internet companies.
Obama has argued these programs have checks and balances. “This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else,” he said at his news conference on Wednesday. “This is a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our people. And all of it is done under the oversight of the courts.”
Earlier in the week, national security officials testified that the programs helped prevent numerous potential terrorist events.