Elijah Cummings Fights Back

Kudos to Elijah Cummings for standing up to Darrell Issa on the IRS investigation. By Michael Tomasky.

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This is becoming quite a throwdown between Darrell Issa, the wild-swinging GOP chairman of the House oversight committee, and Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat. Cummings is showing himself to be a pretty tough customer, and if this IRS “matter” (the media should either stop referring to it as a scandal or, as I suggested in my previous column, make it clear that the only scandal here is Issa’s reckless behavior) fizzles as quickly and lamely as it looks as if it might, it’ll be Cummings who’ll deserve a lot of the credit for breaking some of the silly protocols of Capitol Hill and calling nonsense nonsense. What’s happening now at Issa’s committee threatens to turn him into a walking punchline, and conservatives with any capacity at all for self-reflection ought to take stock of what this whole thing says about their movement’s ability—actually, its desire—to distinguish between fact and fiction.

When last I wrote, I described how Issa, who’s been having closed-door interviews with various IRS employees, has kept those transcripts under wraps. He was asked in May if he ever intended to make them public, and he said yes, he did. Well, he sort of has—that is, he’s been selectively leaking some. Naturally, the parts he’s letting journalists see are the bits that seem ambiguous.

Cummings responded to this by doing some leaking of his own. So he let the world know about the self-described conservative Republican who’d worked in the Cincinnati office for 21 years and said he had no reason whatsoever to think the White House had any role in the IRS decision to apply a little added scrutiny to some Tea Party applications for nonprofit status. Issa responded to that three days ago with a letter, with a fairly high snark quotient by congressional standards, explaining that despite what he said last month, this would be a terrible time to release full transcripts because they “would serve as a roadmap of the Committee’s investigation.”

That may be so, but there’s another suspicion afoot, which is that the full transcripts indicate that there’s no political scandal here. And in the most recent chess move, Cummings, as reported by my colleague Ben Jacobs, wrote another letter to Issa demanding that Issa tell him what portions of the conservative Republican’s testimony were too sensitive to be disclosed, and to tell him by next Monday. The clear implication was that Cummings would release the man’s testimony. That could be a pretty big deal, because, according to Cummings, the man said that he and he alone first “centralized” the Tea Party cases, without any direction from any superiors and without any political motivation.

Now take a step back and ask: Cummings, who has had staff sitting in all these interviews, knows what’s been said by every witness. Would he be swashbuckling around like this if there were anything in there suggesting that there might be a shred of substance to Issa’s more dramatic allegations? Of course not. Now, we must allow for the possibility that Issa’s investigators are out there still finding people and have some surprise witness who’s sitting on emails between Barack Obama and Lois Lerner plotting to destroy the Tea Party movement. But anything like this seems a pretty remote possibility at this point.

What seems more likely is that this was a gross overreaction from the start. I admit it sounded bad. It sounded bad because it involved the IRS, and as soon as people hear “IRS,” they think of Nixon, and liberals fear and conservatives pray for the worst. But in their excitement everyone forgets that Nixon was a complete paranoiac and sociopath, and it’s extremely unlikely that anyone—not even George W. Bush, my least favorite president of recent American history, even worse (all told) than Nixon himself—would try to use the IRS the way Nixon did.

Liberals, getting over their initial panic, see this now. I think this realization is dawning on much of the media as well. But right-wingers, of course, will never accept this, because they have been fed this steady diet of outright lies about Obama such that they all swear up and down that he’s worse than Nixon.

I was never on the impeach-Bush bandwagon myself, but I’ll say this. At least the liberal bill of indictment against Bush had a basis in reality. He and his minions did in fact approve torture. Abu Ghraib did in fact happen. The United States under Bush did in fact violate the Geneva Conventions. He did in fact start a war against an “enemy” that had done nothing to the United States, and so on. We can debate whether these constituted high crimes and misdemeanors, but at least they happened in real life.

For the right, however, the potential high crimes and misdemeanors don’t have to have taken place. They just need to have been presented as plausibilities on Fox and Friends. That’s all the “evidence” they need. And even if the case collapses, then it’s all still good in a way, because it can be chalked up to a vast media conspiracy to protect Obama. Well, yes. When people haven’t broken the law, it’s generally the right idea to say so.