WASHINGTON – White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and other senior advisers knew in late April that an impending report was likely to say the IRS had inappropriately targeted conservative groups, President Barack Obama’s spokesman disclosed Monday, expanding the circle of top officials who knew of the audit beyond those named earlier.
But McDonough and the other advisers did not tell Obama, leaving him to learn about the politically perilous results of the internal investigation from news reports more than two weeks later, officials said.
The Treasury Department also told the White House twice in the weeks leading up to the IRS disclosure that the tax agency planned to make the targeting public, a Treasury official said.
The apparent decision to keep the president in the dark about the matter underscores the White House’s cautious legal approach to controversies and reflects a desire by top advisers to distance Obama from troubles threatening his administration.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney defended keeping the president out of the loop on the Internal Revenue Service audit, saying Obama was comfortable with the fact that “some matters are not appropriate to convey to him, and this is one of them.”
“It is absolutely a cardinal rule as we see it that we do not intervene in ongoing investigations,” Carney said.
Republicans, however, are accusing the president of being unaware of important happenings in the government he oversees.
“It seems to be the answer of the administration whenever they’re caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing is, ‘I didn’t know about it,’ ” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told CBS News. “And it causes me to wonder whether they believe willful ignorance is a defense when it’s your job to know.”
Obama advisers argue that the outcry from Republicans would be far worse had McDonough or White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler told the president about the IRS audit before it became public, thereby raising questions about White House interference.
Still, the White House’s own shifting information about who knew what and when is keeping the focus of the IRS controversy on the West Wing.
When Carney first addressed the matter last week, he said only that Ruemmler had been told around April 22 that an inspector general audit was being concluded at a Cincinnati IRS office that screens applications for organizations’ tax-exempt status. He said the audit was described to the counsel’s office “very broadly.”
But on Monday, Carney said lower-ranking staffers in the White House counsel’s office first learned of the report one week earlier, on April 16. When Ruemmler was later alerted, she was told specifically that the audit was likely to conclude that IRS employees improperly scrutinized organizations by looking for words like “tea party” and “patriot.” Ruemmler then told McDonough, deputy chief of staff Mark Childress and other senior advisers, but not Obama.
The Treasury official said Monday that the department twice passed on information to the White House about the IRS’ plans to disclose the political targeting. Childress and Treasury chief of staff Mark Patterson were in communication on the matter, as were lawyers at both the White House and Treasury.
In the first instance, Treasury officials told the White House that Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups, was considering making a public apology in a speech.
Around the same time, Treasury relayed to the White House that Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller expected to be asked about the matter in congressional testimony on April 25, but the issue was not raised.
However, the Treasury official said the department did not tell the White House about the IRS’ final decision for Lerner to apologize for the targeting during a conference on May 10. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity.
The IRS is an independent agency within the Treasury Department. Because of that independent status, the official said Treasury deferred to the IRS in its decision about how to make the targeting public.
Despite the notifications from the Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, the White House insists it did not know the conclusions of the inspector general report until it was made public.