Holder, Carney Under Attack as Scandal-Gate Widens

As tough questions come in, the White House finds itself at a loss for easy answers, writes John Avlon.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

For journalists, privacy concerns and the Patriot Act just got personal. In two brutal press conferences Tuesday afternoon, the Obama administration caught both barrels from a newly aggressive press corps.

Confronting a hailstorm of questions on the Justice Department’s secret subpoena of AP phone records and the IRS targeting conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, Attorney General Eric Holder and White House press secretary Jay Carney struggled to stay on message, clinging for dear life to phrases like “unfettered,” “inappropriate” and “striking a balance.”

With the significant exception of Attorney General Holder – at a scheduled press conference on Medicaid fraud – announcing that the FBI and Justice were investigating the IRS, the presidential piñatas had little new information to deliver on the expanding front of scandals enveloping the Obama administration. (Word went out just before Holder’s presser that he had recused himself from the national security leak probe that led to the Department of Justice obtaining the phone records of Associated Press journalists since FBI agents had already questioned him about the leak – which led to a press conference where the head of Justice couldn’t answer simple questions about what Justice had done.)

Perhaps most notable as the president’s men dodged questions was the rare unified field of criticisms from news organizations on the left and the right. The phantom of Benghazi was largely set aside in favor of substantive questions on the more serious scandals involving the Justice Department and the IRS. Oddly, the AG chose to echo President Obama’s repeated description of the tax-exempt status scandal – “outrageous.” In addition to the tough crowd inside the briefing room, the Twitterverse exploded in a combination of bipartisan mockery and rubbernecking at the scene of a car-crash.

The administration seemed tied up in knots on its insistence that President Obama still supports the media-shield legislation he touted as a senator and candidate but did not aggressively back once in the White House – insisting on a national-security exception that effectively gutted it, and left it to die in the senate. Earnest attempts at spin aside, the facts lead directly to accusations of a flip-flop. As Jay Jarvis put it on Twitter, “Carney says Obama believes in balancing "unfettered" investigative journalism w/natl security. Doesn't sound unfettered then.

Carney is right to insist on balance. Absolutists on either side miss the practical realities of governing. And it is no badge of honor that the press corps seems more attuned to objections about the excesses of the Patriot Act when it affects them.

But amid trite narratives about the second-term curse and misapplied Nixon metaphors (offered up primarily by Republicans), there is now a circling consistent with the sense that blood is in the water. Getting out front of these scandals with unspun facts that offer perspective (as CNN’s scoop of an email from National Security senior staffer Ben Rhodes on Benghazi that contradicts conspiracy theorists provides) will be critical to navigating this new territory.

The press corps has turned on the White House in large part because they feel betrayed by the secret AP records search. Trust has been broken and the traditional adversarial relationship has been reasserted. A rough road lies ahead.

“Significant challenges lie ahead,” said Holder. He was referring to Medicaid fraud, but he might as well have been speaking about himself.