Whether it’s Benghazi! or the I.R.S. v. “tea party” scrum or the Associated Press/Justice Department phone record grab, conservatives have been – bless their hearts – doing their dead-level best to somehow pin blame to President Barack Obama and his administration with zeal. As of this writing, however, they’ve still come up short; but if you’re watching any cable news outlet or enjoying dinner while watching the network new, or you’ve spent any time on your favorite social media platform, you might not know that.
Let’s start with Benghazi; when ABC “scooped” the world with (important word here) “summaries” of internal e-mails that painted a picture of deception and “terror” being whitewashed from the “talking points” the American people initially received. There are three avenues conservatives have tried to attack the Obama administration on, post-Benghazi:
1. Embassy/Consulate security needs being met (they screwed the pooch on that one with their embassy funding cut vote last summer),
2. the lack of a response, militarily, to the consulate attack, which both the Pentagon and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates scoffed at) and
3. (I’m paraphrasing here) “the American people were lied to!” Well, with the first two contentions not sticking, the third was about all that remained; until CNN’s report today coughed up White House e-mails (not merely nuanced summaries of them) that ran counter to the ABC report. The entire e-mail is HERE.
The CNN pieces wraps with this:
…whoever leaked the inaccurate information earlier this month did so in a way that made it appear that the White House – specifically Rhodes – was more interested in the State Department’s concerns, and more focused on the talking points, than the e-mail actually stated.
…which is about all you need to know, but feel free to comb through the CNN piece anyhow if you wish. It would appear, then, that Benghazi is now a useless political football for the G.O.P. Those four casualties can now stop being chess pieces for political gain. Finally.
So the next big “scandal” to rock the White House (if you can really even say that), is the Internal Revenue Service’s handling of the various tea party organizations that arose after President Obama’s first presidential victory. In essence, IRS agents from Cincinnati to D.C. gave extra scrutiny to politically-motivated 501(c)4 organizations that were tea party-like or flat-out tea party-based. From Mother Jones:
It began back in March 2010, when the tea party movement was all the rage. According to a leaked timeline (PDF) from a draft report by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, IRS staffers began flagging applications from groups with politically themed names like “We the People” and “Take Back the Country.” Staffers also targeted groups whose names included the words “tea party” and “patriots.” Those flagged applications were then sent to specialists for a more rigorous review than is typical.
Further into the piece…
In June 2011, Lerner reportedly became aware of what was going on and directed staffers to change to how they vetted nonprofit applications.
Alright; problem solved, right? Well, no. After all the super-scrutiny, many in these some 298 organizations had complained enough to their elected friends that Congress started asking questions about in the summer of 2012. Other than some queries by Rep. Charles Boustany (R-Louisiana) and a hearing by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), not much really came of it, until Lois Lerner, the IRS official who oversees the agency’s tax exemption division, publicly apologized for the agency’s prior actions, when speaking with a group of tax lawyers, last Friday.
But here’s the thing: as Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker magazine asks: “Did the I.R.S. actually do anything wrong?”
It’s important to review why the Tea Party groups were petitioning the I.R.S. anyway. They were seeking approval to operate under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. This would require them to be “social welfare,” not political, operations. There are significant advantages to being a 501(c)(4). These groups don’t pay taxes; they don’t have to disclose their donors—unlike traditional political organizations, such as political-action committees. In return for the tax advantage and the secrecy, the 501(c)(4) organizations must refrain from traditional partisan political activity, like endorsing candidates.
If that definition sounds murky—that is, if it’s unclear what 501(c)(4) organizations are allowed to do—that’s because it is murky. Particularly leading up to the 2012 elections, many conservative organizations, nominally 501(c)(4)s, were all but explicitly political in their work. For example, Americans for Prosperity, which was funded in part by the Koch Brothers, was an instrumental force in helping the Republicans hold the House of Representatives. In every meaningful sense, groups like Americans for Prosperity were operating as units of the Republican Party. Democrats organized similar operations, but on a much smaller scale. (They undoubtedly would have done more, but they lacked the Republican base for funding such efforts.)
So the scandal—the real scandal—is that 501(c)(4) groups have been engaged in political activity in such a sustained and open way. As Fred Wertheimer, the President of Democracy 21, a government-ethics watchdog group, put it, “it is clear that a number of groups have improperly claimed tax-exempt status as section 501(c)(4) ‘social welfare’ organizations in order to hide the donors who financed their campaign activities in the 2010 and 2012 federal elections.”
Remember when campaign finance reform as so popular? Remember how sick and tired “we, the people” get every election cycle with the inundation of campaign ads from candidates and “special interest” groups? Understand this: the Federal Election Commission oversees campaign finance; the I.R.S., however, is charged with watching non-profits and their political activities. And with these tea party groups allowing deep-pocketed donors to donation as much as they wish, they’re, in essence, cover groups for those who could seek to skirt campaign finance limitations and push a political agenda all the same.
An old media friend (and right-wing radio host), Austin Rhodes, chimed in on a Facebook thread of mine when I broached the question as to whether or not politically motivated non-profits should even BE tax exempt with this question:
Like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, etc etc etc, You really wanna go there???
My reply, in essence: “….or the NAACP or Greenpeace (both targeted by the IRS during the Bush presidency. Incidentally, you listed organizations who both have primary purposes OTHER than political action.”
What sort of “social welfare” do tea party groups offer? They aren’t feeding the hungry; they don’t build houses for the homeless or find homes for stray animals. What IS their “social welfare?” Back to the New Yorker…
…the I.R.S. employees thought that these groups might be doing explicit politics—which would disqualify them for 501(c)(4) status, and set them aside for closer examination. This appears to have been a pretty reasonable assumption on the part of the I.R.S. employees: having “Tea Party” in your name is at least a slight clue about partisanship. When the inspector-general report becomes public, we’ll surely learn the identity of these organizations. How many will look like “social welfare” organizations—and how many will look like political activists looking for anonymity and tax breaks? My guess is a lot more of the latter than the former.
Campaign finance operates by shaky, or even nonexistent, rules, and powerful players game the system with impunity. A handful of I.R.S. employees saw this and tried, in a small way, to impose some small sense of order. For that, they’ll likely be ushered into bureaucratic oblivion.
Late today, came word that the IRS Inspector General shot down any notion of political malice, instead labeling the agency’s actions as “incompetence,” thus absolving the Obama administration of wrongdoing.
A 48-page IG report explicitly stated that the IRS behavior was “not politically biased,” that it was due to lower-level staff who did not understand their jobs and sometimes acted insubordinately, and that it was not driven by the White House.
Did I mention, by the way, that the IRS commissioner at the time – Douglas Shulman – was a George W. Bush appointee? Two scandals dead; what’s left?
Oh yeah, the A.P./Justice Department phone bill flap…
Apparently the Justice Department secretly obtained phone records of employees and reporters with the Associated Press, in connection to a probe on the leak of information regarding a foiled terror plot. The goal was to determine the AP’s sources. Late today, Attorney General Eric Holder recused himself from the investigation; however he defended the DOJ’s conduct in what he described as being one of the more damaging leaks he’s seen. From the Washington Post:
“The decision to seek media toll records in this investigation was made by the Deputy Attorney General consistent with Department regulations and policies,” the Justice Department said in a statement shortly before Holder made his remarks.
And what did Holder say, exactly?
He said that since he became a prosecutor in 1976, “this is among the top two or three serious leaks that I’ve ever seen.” He added that “it put the American people at risk” and that “trying to determine who was responsible for that required very aggressive action.”
So this “scandal” is pretty boring right now, but with Benghazi!!! and the I.R.S. scandal failing to avail themselves to an “Impeach Obama!” agenda, this will assuredly be the drum-beat of neo-cons and their right-wing media outlets for the foreseeable future. That being the likely case, it’s important to point out two things…
1. Wasn’t this sort of shady, behind-the-scenes snooping “on our own” quite the norm under a Bush presidency, and made allowable by the invasive PATRIOT Act?
2. Didn’t the Bush administration stonewall any effort to investigate said wiretapping? (Yes, they did).
3. Because after the Associated Press reported that the CIA had foiled another al Qaeda underwear bombing plot, many Republicans suspected the intelligence leaks came from the White House (as some sort of ginned-up P.R. opportunity), the Justice Department basically did what they wanted: they got busy investigating vigorously. Remember this?
“I continue to call on the president to immediately appoint a special counsel to fully investigate, and where necessary, prosecute these gravely serious breaches of our national security.” – Senator John Mccain (R) Arizona
I mean, as egregious and shocking an over-reach as this may well , there was a subpoena, in this case; not so much with those wiretaps.
Add to that the PATRIOT Act the Bush administration and it’s allies in Congress drafted, passed into being and re-authorized, it seems the snagging of phone records may well have been nothing but legal. Is it wise to piss off the press? No; was the activity legal? Possibly and probably.
So if ANY “scandal” is going to stick to President Obama personally, ironically it may be the one current flash fire that progressives would normally go bat-shit crazy about and neo-cons would say is “necessary” if a Republican were in the White House, and the action(s) was/were done in the name of national security. And, hey, they wanted an investigation into those leaks, after all … but we all know that Republicans will pounce anyhow, forgetting their prior role in making such activity even remotely possible and likely legal thanks to murky PATRIOT act lingo. The irony…