Blow Smoke, Yell Fire

For a few days, it looked like the Obama administration might actually be in trouble. A week ago Friday, ABC’s Jonathan Karl released excerpts of White House emails that appeared to show the White House engineering a cover-up of the true nature of the Benghazi attack, and at the very least being way more involved in producing the Susan Rice talking points than the administration had claimed.

Across the country, Democrats felt that old sinking feeling. It was Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress all over again. After years of beating back outrageous Republican attempts to manufacture a scandal out of nothing — Bill Ayers, the birth certificate, death panelsObama’s “real” fatherSolyndra, Fast and Furious, and on and on and on (just like Vince Foster, Whitewater, Travelgate, and Clinton’s illegitimate black son the last time a Democrat was president) — the long fishing expedition finally had an actual fish.

And even if the rest of it was a typical fisherman’s exaggeration, there would always be that one fish to point to. The conspiracy-theorist’s eternal “What are they hiding?” had turned into the much more reasonable “What else are they hiding?”

Jonathan Chait wrote:

Karl’s report produced among mainstream and liberal reporters a sense of embarrassment at having dismissed the story as a weird partisan obsession.

Worst of all, Obama’s defenders had to wonder the same thing. What blue dresses were hanging in some closet, waiting to be found? If you spoke up, would you eventually look as foolish as all the people who insisted that Bill Clinton “did not have sex with that woman”?

Then came the announcement of an IRS scandal, and an AP scandal, and the sky seemed to falling. So much smoke! There must be a fire under there somewhere.

Then the counter-scandal broke: ABC had been tricked. The “emails” they released had been doctored by Republicans to make the administration look bad. When you read the actual emails, you saw the State Department and the CIA jockeying for advantage, with the White House playing more-or-less the hands-off role it originally claimed.

So there’s still no fish. It’s still “a weird partisan obsession”. It’s still “What are they hiding?” not “What else are they hiding?”

Likewise, as details of the IRS and AP affairs come out, each is disturbing in its own way, but the IRS story seems contained to one IRS office with no White House involvement, and the “scandal” in the AP story is the legal bipartisan policy the administration was faithfully carrying out.

The white-whale hunt for an impeachable offense will no doubt continue, but this pseudo-scandals are not it.

Let’s review where we are:

Benghazi. The four American deaths are a combination of (i) being a diplomat in an anarchic post-civil-war environment is dangerous; and (ii) some screw-ups from which lessons should be learned.  The report of the Accountability Review Board has 24 recommendations. Maybe Congress should be talking about them rather than faking emails and defrauding reporters.

The only intentional wrong-doing anybody has uncovered so far is the forging of the emails and Jonathan Karl’s lie that he had “obtained” the emails when actually Republican staffers had just told him about them. Karl, BTW, is digging in deeper and deeper, which really ought to end his career. He has expressed “regret” about quoting the emails incorrectly, and that he “should have been clearer about the attribution”. But his main regret is that this has “become a distraction from the story, which still entirely stands.”

No, the story totally does not stand, unless you think the story is that the talking points went through 12 iterations, as talking points probably always do. Karl’s scoop was a smoking gun about White House dishonesty. That scoop was false, and an honest reporter would admit that.

Remember: When Dan Rather failed to properly authenticate documents that made President Bush look bad, people got fired and Rather ultimately had to leave CBS. Smearing a Republican president is a serious matter.

The IRS. The background here is that organizations that educate the public about political issues can receive tax-exempt contributions and don’t have to reveal their donors, while organizations that try to elect specific candidates can’t and do. It’s a fuzzy boundary frequently abused: A group might educate the public about how horrible Policy X is, and then also educate the public about how Yellow Party candidate Smith supports Policy X and the Orange Party candidate Jones opposes it. But as long as they don’t actually say “Vote for Jones”, they might maintain their tax-exempt status.

Citizens United opened floodgates of money for such organizations and a lot of new ones were established. All their applications for tax-exempt status went through one office in Cincinnati. Tuesday, the IRS inspector general issued a report “Inappropriate Criteria Were Used to Identify Tax-Exempt Applications for Review“. Conservative groups, particularly Tea Party groups, were scrutinized more closely.

Everybody agrees that was wrong. The question is why it happened. If the idea was hatched in the White House as a way to hobble its enemies, then it’s a genuine Watergate-level scandal. But there’s not a shred of evidence for that. The practice apparently started with one guy, and so far nobody has asked him why. Atlantic reports:

The crux of the investigation by Congress and the administration will be why that employee started to flag those applications — and why, as the inspector general notes, it soon became an office-wide practice. Was it an attempt to streamline the workflow? Or was it politically motivated behavior meant to target Tea Party groups? So far, it appears to be the former;

A number of side issues crop up in this story:

The damage done is exaggerated. The typical result was that a flagged group needed to fill out some extra forms and provide some additional information. Approval of tax-exempt status took longer than it otherwise might have. Once an application’s review started, there’s no evidence that politics played a role in the ultimate decision.

Tarring ObamaCare. Republicans have been using this issue as a way to attack ObamaCare, because the IRS has a role in it. The worst of these arguments revive the “death panels” hoax, with the added wrinkle that your surgery might be denied because you’re conservative. But in reality, the IRS deals only with the tax issues that arise in ObamaCare: Are you in the income bracket that allows you to claim a health-insurance subsidy, or do you owe the individual-mandate penalty? There’s no mechanism for the IRS to affect treatment decisions, no matter how politically corrupt it might get.

The laws about political activity and tax-exempt organizations are screwed up. Jeffrey Toobin claims that the real scandal is what’s legal, and the way big-money organizations game the system.

Anecdotal reports of audits prove nothing. Now any conservative who gets audited can claim political persecution, in the same way that any white guy who applies for a job and doesn’t get it can claim to be a victim of affirmative action. The WSJ’s Kimberley Strassel claims victim status for the big Romney donor Frank VanderSloot based on … well, nothing really.

Was the White House involved in the IRS’s targeting of conservatives? No investigation needed to answer that one. Of course it was.

How can you argue with that? Peggy Noonan then picks up the ball and runs further, claiming victimhood for Billy Graham and a couple other people, and then concluding:

It is not even remotely possible the actions were the work of just a few agents. This was more systemic. It was an operation. The word was out: Get the Democratic Party’s foes. It is not remotely possible nobody in the IRS knew what was going on until very recently.

It’s true: If you imagine a systemic set of violations, then you need a systemic conspiracy to account for it. But again, it would be nice to have just a shred of evidence before going there.

Nate Silver brings some sanity to the topic.

The fact that Ms. Noonan has identified four conservatives from that group of thousands provides no evidence at all toward her hypothesis. Nor would it tell us very much if dozens or even hundreds of conservative activists disclosed that they had been audited. This is exactly what you would expect in a country where there are 1.5 million audits every year.

AP. I’ll let AP itself make the charge:

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news. …

The government would not say why it sought the records. Officials have previously said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.

Like the IRS story, this is bad. But once again the badness is what is legal: During the Bush administration, Congress changed the law to give the government the power to do this kind of stuff. It ought to be unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court has managed to either excuse it or dodge cases where it might come up — and the worst justices on this issue are the conservative ones like Thomas and Scalia.

Just like the overall policy, the AP case has a bipartisan origin:

The two leak inquiries were started after Republicans in Congress accused the Obama administration of orchestrating news stories intended to demonstrate the president’s toughness on terrorism and improve his chance for reelection. The Republicans sought a special prosecutor, but Holder instead named two veteran prosecutors to handle the inquiries.

Jonathan Chait sums up:

The AP story is a more audacious step in a long government campaign, spanning two administrations, to ruthlessly prosecute leaks about the fight against Jihadi terrorism. In every single step of this fight before this one, Republicans occupied the far-right flank. They voted down shield laws; they demanded more vigorous prosecution of leakers than Obama was carrying out.

So absolutely, let’s have a new shield law and let’s get some people on the Supreme Court who take the First Amendment seriously. Let’s reverse the get-the-whistleblower policy that has stood since 9-11. But this is not a political scandal, it’s Obama carrying out a bipartisan policy.

Why? Finally, we need to examine why the Republicans are doing this. Why is everything that goes wrong force-fit into a now-we-can-impeach-Obama frame?

Heritage Action, a PAC associated with the conservative Heritage Foundation, explained in a letter to John Boehner and Eric Cantor:

it would be imprudent to do anything that shifts the focus from the Obama administration to the ideological differences within the House Republican Conference. To that end, we urge you to avoid bringing any legislation to the House floor that could expose or highlight major schisms within the conference.

In other words: Don’t try to legislate, because Republicans can’t agree on any legislative agenda. The only thing they can agree on is that they hate Obama. So stick with that. Investigate everything. Make mountains out of molehills if you have to. Just don’t try to do anything constructive, because that will divide the party.

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  • By This Nasty Phase | The Weekly Sift on May 22, 2013 at 10:13 am

    […] I summarize the current state of the Benghazi, IRS, and AP stories — and explain why Republicans feel compelled to manufacture these pseudo-scandals —  in Blow Smoke, Yell Fire. […]

  • By Staying in Bounds | The Weekly Sift on May 27, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    […] Last week I talked about how Jonathan Karl’s dishonest journalism on Benghazi briefly made it look like there really was a White House cover-up. It turns out we should have seen that coming. Two years ago, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) had him pegged as a “right-wing mole at ABC News“. He comes out of the same conservative program that gave us Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Michelle Malkin, Rich Lowry and Laura Ingraham. […]

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