White House press secretary Jay Carney is questioned by the press during… (JASON REED/REUTERS )
The White House offered a new account Monday of how and when it learned that the Internal Revenue Service had improperly targeted conservative groups, saying that some senior officials were informed of the findings but that President Obama was not.
The assertions came as the White House struggled to contain a political uproar over the IRS, which targeted conservative organizations for extra scrutiny, as well as over the administration’s aggressive pursuit of journalists in leak investigations and its handling of the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in September.
White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler told White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other top officials about the IRS findings nearly a month ago, press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. Ruemmler decided the information should not be transmitted to the president because the IRS inspector general’s report was not finished, he said.
“The judgment of the White House counsel was that this is not a matter that she should convey to the president,” Carney told reporters during a tense news briefing. “This is not the kind of thing, when you have an ongoing investigation or an ongoing audit, that requires notification to the president, because what is important is that we wait until that kind of process is completed before we take action.”
The new account goes well beyond what officials had said as recently as Sunday, when senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in television interviews that the White House did not know the results of the inquiry until the inspector general’s report was released last week. Carney had said previously that Ruemmler was told “only about the fact that the IG was finishing a review” of the IRS’s conduct, and he portrayed it as a “normal sort of heads-up” notification.
But Carney said Monday that a member of the White House counsel’s staff learned of the IG report the week of April 16, a week earlier than previously disclosed. He also said Ruemmler had briefed McDonough and other senior aides on the findings.
The Treasury Department was informed on three separate occasions that the IRS planned to disclose that it targeted conservative groups for scrutiny, and on one occasion, Treasury expressed concern about the nature of the disclosure, a Treasury official said on Monday night. In all cases, the official said, the department ultimately deferred to the IRS.
In late April, the IRS told Treasury that senior tax official Lois Lerner was considering making a speech in which she would publicly apologize for inappropriate conduct at the IRS in advance of an inspector report documenting how tax agency officials gave extra scrutiny to conservative groups.
“Treasury expressed some concern about the idea of a speech, but ultimately deferred to the IRS on that issue,” the Treasury official said Monday. Treasury officials also discussed the potential disclosure with the White House and said it planned to defer.
Later, Treasury was told ahead of time that Lerner would be asked a question about whether the IRS was screening conservative groups at an American Bar Association conference on May 10. “Treasury again deferred to the IRS on their interest in making a public apology,” the official said.
The revelations were the latest in a series of disclosures about what officials knew about the IRS scandal before it became public on May 10, when the agency apologized for singling out right-leaning groups.
The string of disclosures added to a growing sense of a White House under siege, struggling to contain multiple controversies at once.
Administration officials were on the defensive Monday about a Washington Post report that the FBI had tracked the phone calls, e-mails and movements of James Rosen, a diplomatic correspondent for Fox News Channel, as part of a leak probe.
In the IRS case, White House officials said Obama would not have acted any differently had he known ahead of time about the inspector general’s findings. Obama has said he learned of them in the media on May 10.
“It’s somewhat ironic that there has been some suggestion that action should have been taken because we were aware that an independent IG was reaching the conclusion of a report,” Carney said. “These kinds of independent investigations need to be independent. There should be no intervention by a White House, and, of course, there was not in this case.”
The IRS began to target conservative groups seeking tax-
exempt status in early 2010, first scrutinizing organizations with “tea party” and other conservative-sounding names. After a long bureaucratic struggle, agency officials finally put the targeting to rest in 2012. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration soon began an audit of the practices, releasing its results last week.