The IRS Scandal

Just Say No (Special Prosecutor)

Naming a special prosecutor would destroy Obama’s presidency, says Michael Tomasky.

Now that we’ve been through the first round of hearings on the IRS matter, it’s apparent that there are a few things Barack Obama should do. Yes, he should move to fire Lois Lerner. I wrote on May 13, the day of the press conference at which he first addressed the matter, that he should vow that some heads would roll. He should also—and this won’t placate the right; far from it, in fact, but so be it—explain to the American people the reasons this controversy is being overblown. But there is one thing that he absolutely must not do, and that is pay the least bit of attention to these calls for a special prosecutor. That will be the end, either literal or metaphorical, of his presidency, because of the ceaseless bad faith of the people trying to elevate this thing to Watergate proportions. Just say no, and say it firmly.

In substantive terms, this “scandal” consists of bureaucratic bungling, and apparently really stupid bureaucratic political tone deafness. But a conspiracy organized from the White House? Please. The Treasury Department Inspector General report that came out May 14 said that of the 296 “potential political cases” reviewed up through December 2012, the dispositions were as follows: 108 applications approved, 28 withdrawn, 160 left open for a lengthy period of time, and zero denied. That’s right. Zero. Now, you could say that there’s a problem with those 160, and I wouldn’t deny it. Something was broken, something needs fixed. Everyone acknowledges that. But what sort of conspiracy to silence Tea Party groups ends up denying zero of their applications? It’s an absurd claim.

Now we get to the politics. Darrell Issa claims election-season cover-up. But he knew about the IG probe in the summer of 2012, and then received a letter in July confirming it. So one aspect of this that greatly confuses me is why Issa didn’t go public with his accusations then. His spokesman, whom I emailed over the weekend, told me that it was because Issa kept asking the IG for more information, but the IG didn’t give any. Fair enough. But that still strikes me as an unusual degree of discretion on Issa’s part. He needed to know all the details before going public with something that might have helped his party’s presidential candidate in a pretty big way? If that’s the case, he is an unusual Republican indeed.

Supposedly, you see, the Obama White House knew everything and hid it. But the question is, knew what? They knew, some people there knew, that an investigation was taking place. They knew roughly what it was about. But it’s precisely their job not to say anything about it or, certainly, pry into it. Neal Wolin is the Treasury official who learned of the existence of the probe in June 2012. He told the House committee yesterday: “When an inspector general tells us he is conducting a review, we step back and leave him to do his work. That is how the process functions. That is how the process should function.”

Now we move to the Obama campaign. Did someone in the Obama campaign perhaps know about the probe? We don’t know yet, and obviously the Republicans would love to find a scalp here. But if they did, what would it prove? It would depend on who knew, and exactly what he or she knew. But assuming this person knew no details of the probe, what was he/she supposed to do? Go public with the information that there’s this thing going on that might be damaging to my side, but we don’t have the facts yet and don’t really know?

This brings us to the big fish, Obama, who is the only fish that really matters here. The political oomph of this rests entirely on one question, which is whether he was telling the truth at that May 13 press conference about having first learned about this the previous Friday. I can’t imagine a president lying about such a thing on national television. I can’t even imagine that George W. Bush would have told such a lie. If the truth is, ah, unattractive, you give a general answer. But a lie like that is so easily disproved, and carries such potentially huge consequences, that it’s almost impossible to imagine.

That’s the bottom line here. The Republicans are looking for some way to tie this bureaucratic screw-up to last year’s campaign, or better still to Obama himself. They know very well the best way to do that: a special prosecutor. A special prosecutor, unlike all those apparently unspecial prosecutors across the United States trying to nab genuinely bad guys with limited resources, has no constraints on time or money. He can just keep turning over rocks until he finds something that smells suspicious. Of all the undemocratic institutions we suffer with in our democracy, it’s far and away the most undemocratic.

Bill Clinton learned that agreeing to a special prosecutor was the greatest mistake of his presidency (and by the way, conservatives howling for one now—imagine what Dick Cheney would have thought of a Plame special prosecutor, and at least have the self-awareness to acknowledge that you’d have been with him every step of the way). But part of the reason Clinton agreed was that he knew he and Hillary had done nothing wrong on Whitewater.

Fat lot of good that did them. Obama may know that he’s done nothing wrong here, but that is no reason to accede to these dishonest demands. There will be pressure from the right, and it will grow, but there’s only one person who has the power to name a special prosecutor. His name is Obama. He has been naive about the Republicans, but he better not be that naive.