The Nature of the Beast: The Breathless Press and the Phony IRS ‘Scandal’

While you were watching the Zimmerman trial, the narrative about the IRS targeting Obama’s enemies has been thoroughly debunked, writes Michael Tomasky.

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The IRS “scandal,” lately dormant, is returning soon to a cable-news channel near you: tomorrow, Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general who produced the original report at Darrell Issa’s request, is going back before Issa’s committee, and this time he’s in for some pretty serious grilling from Democrats. The evidence is now even more preponderant than it already was that there was absolutely no political agenda in the IRS’s review of 501(c)(4) applications. In fact, evidence is mounting that if anyone was behaving politically here, it was George—and, of course, Issa and the other Republicans who launched into their baseless tirades about “enemies lists” and other such nonsense.

Here’s what has happened while you were watching the Zimmerman trial or the immigration debate. Last Friday, Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on Issa’s oversight committee, sent Issa a letter asking that he recall George. Here are three examples of things Cummings’s investigators turned up about which they might like to hear George’s answers:

First, George apparently failed to disclose to the committee an interaction with his top investigator, who reviewed (at George’s request) some 5,500 emails from IRS employees. The investigator determined after his review that there was “no indication that pulling these selected applications was politically motivated.” They were singled out for review because the IRS employees weren’t sure how to process them. The investigator shared this finding with George, so evidently he knew about it. One might have thought that this would have been a relevant fact for George to share with the committee. But he did not.

Second, it has been George’s position that the word “progressive” was never used as a search criterion by IRS workers, a position that lent credence to the idea that only conservative applicants were targeted. But Cummings’s staff has now unearthed a Power Point presentation that was created for an IRS “workshop” meeting in July 2010 on how to handle sensitive cases. The second page of the Power Point is headlined “Politics” and features two photographs—an elephant and a donkey. Get it? Then, page three has the words “Tea Party”; page four, the words “Patriots” and “9/12 Project” (two more names that would indicate conservative affiliation); page five, the word “Progressive.” George had written to committee Democrat Sander Levin denying that “Progressive” was used as a screening term in 2010. But it clearly was.

Third, George said that “Occupy” as a screening term was used only on a spreadsheet labeled “Historical,” suggesting that Occupy Wall Street–related groups weren’t scrutinized. But Cummings’s staff found a document showing (scroll all the way to the bottom) that “Occupy” groups were on a “Watch List” in January 2012 and were to be referred to the same IRS group that was handling the “Tea Party” cases. George didn’t tell the committee any of this, either.

There’s more. The committee has now conducted 15 interviews with IRS employees. Six of these people said they were Republican or had voted Republican, six claimed no political affiliation, and three said they were Democrats. All have shot down the idea that there was any political bias at the IRS, and all have said they had no knowledge or evidence of any White House involvement. One of the Republicans, asked about those angles, said: “No, not at all. That’s kind of laughable that people think that. No, not at all. This is purely cases that, unfortunately, Cincinnati didn’t have enough guidance on. That (c)(4) area is a very, very difficult area, and there’s not much guidance. And so the lingering length of time, unfortunately, was just trying to apply the law to the specific facts of each case.”

That’s one of the Republicans talking. It’s my understanding that maybe five more witnesses remain to be interviewed. I hasten to note that I suppose it could be the case that one of these five provides the Perry Mason moment that Issa and the Republicans are seeking, bursting through the courtroom door at the climactic moment to offer the damning evidence. But my analogy, upon reflection, is backward. Those star witnesses always helped Mason and his client, not prosecutor Hamilton Burger. Here, Issa is Burger, and the chances of finding that witness seem today as remote as Burger’s chances of besting Mason.

So this should all wrap fairly soon this fall. If nothing more is unearthed, what do you suppose the odds are that Issa will step forward and say something like, “I was wrong to say back in May that this matter represented ‘the targeting of the president’s political enemies.’ I withdraw the comment and offer the president my apology”? Or Orrin Hatch withdrawing his assertion that he’d “never seen anything quite like this, except in the past during the Nixon years”? Or George Will, or Peggy Noonan, with her series of utterly unhinged columns proving now to be roughly as prescient as the one she wrote predicting a Mitt Romney victory because of the balance of yard signs she’d espied in northwest Washington, D.C.?

And what about the mainstream media that swallowed whole from the Republican-conservative spoon, running huge headlines and ominous editorials, all those breathy stories that got nearly half the American public believing, on the basis of zero hard evidence, that the White House was involved here? It’s not in the nature of the beast to run huge headlines saying “No Scandal Here.” But it should be in the beast’s nature to take a much harder look at Issa, George, and the other perpetuators of this non-story. And it should start tomorrow, when George testifies.