Message to the president: Resistance is futile.
There are plenty of juicy targets for investigators in the IRS scrutiny of conservative organizations that applied for tax-exempt status, but the most dangerous for President Obama is this: Did bureaucrats in Cincinnati create this mess on their own? Or did someone in the White House give the marching orders to target the president's enemies?
The Treasury Department's inspector general asked that latter question of the IRS brass, and they said no — but he didn't demand their emails and phone records.
So Congress is demanding them now. On Monday, Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, the top members on the Senate Finance Committee, asked the IRS for all records of communications with "any and all White House employees — including, but not limited to, the president."
Obama shouldn't merely allow the IRS to cooperate; he should order the IRS to cooperate fully and enthusiastically. Meantime, the White House staff should also begin combing their own records to see if there's anything else they need to fess up. Under the doctrine of executive privilege, internal White House records are normally immune from congressional probing, but it would benefit Obama to be forthcoming.
The reason is simple: The president needs to prove a negative. He needs to show that there was no political influence over the IRS decisions. Proving a negative is never easy; it's doubly difficult when others are beginning to doubt your word.
The White House hasn't done much to bolster the president's credibility so far. While Obama himself has said the right things, his aides have sounded grouchy and grudging about cooperating with congressional investigations.
When spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether the White House would disclose emails to Congress, he refused to say — beyond a general promise to cooperate with any "legitimate congressional oversight."
White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer was downright pugnacious. "This is a Republican playbook," Pfeiffer charged during one of his Sunday TV appearances. "When they don't have a positive agenda, (they) try to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped-up hearings and false allegations."
Even worse, the administration is having a hard time getting its story straight on who knew about the IRS problem and when they knew it.
The initial story was that nobody in the White House knew anything about the inspector general's findings in advance of the report's release last week. Then it turned out that White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was briefed on its findings in late April. A few days later, the White House disclosed that Ruemmler told chief of staff Denis McDonough about the findings. But McDonough decided not to inform his boss, the president — according to the White House, that is.
The irony is that it shouldn't matter if Obama knew the inspector general's report was coming or what it said. The important thing is that no one in the White House intervened to block, delay or change it.
But by getting its story wrong and revising it repeatedly, the White House has managed to make itself look guilty of something, whether it is or not. And that is prompting everyone else — even some allies — to invoke the Watergate question: What did he know and when did he know it?
"He has to come forward and give more of an answer than he has done," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y.
Here's another danger sign for Obama: His overall public approval is holding up, but it isn't translating into instant credibility on this issue.
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