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Approval isn't the same as credibility
May 29, 2013 - By Doyle McManus
President Obama might be learning that lesson -- uncomfortably.
Message to the president: Resistance is futile.
There are plenty of juicy targets for investigators in the IRS scrutiny of conservative organizations that applied for tax-exempt status, but the most dangerous for President Obama is this: Did bureaucrats in Cincinnati create this mess on their own? Or did someone in the White House give the marching orders to target the president's enemies?
The Treasury Department's inspector general asked that latter question of the IRS brass, and they said no -- but he didn't demand their emails and phone records.
So Congress is demanding them now. On Monday, Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, the top members on the Senate Finance Committee, asked the IRS for all records of communications with "any and all White House employees -- including, but not limited to, the president."
Obama shouldn't merely allow the IRS to cooperate; he should order the IRS to cooperate fully and enthusiastically. Meantime, the White House staff should also begin combing their own records to see if there's anything else they need to fess up. Under the doctrine of executive privilege, internal White House records are normally immune from congressional probing, but it would benefit Obama to be forthcoming.
The reason is simple: The president needs to prove a negative. He needs to show that there was no political influence over the IRS decisions. Proving a negative is never easy; it's doubly difficult when others are beginning to doubt your word.
The White House hasn't done much to bolster the president's credibility so far. While Obama himself has said the right things, his aides have sounded grouchy and grudging about cooperating with congressional investigations.
When spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether the White House would disclose emails to Congress, he refused to say -- beyond a general promise to cooperate with any "legitimate congressional oversight."
White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer was downright pugnacious. "This is a Republican playbook," Pfeiffer charged during one of his Sunday TV appearances. "When they don't have a positive agenda, (they) try to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped-up hearings and false allegations."
Even worse, the administration is having a hard time getting its story straight on who knew about the IRS problem and when they knew it.
The initial story was that nobody in the White House knew anything about the inspector general's findings in advance of the report's release last week. Then it turned out that White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was briefed on its findings in late April. A few days later, the White House disclosed that Ruemmler told chief of staff Denis McDonough about the findings. But McDonough decided not to inform his boss, the president -- according to the White House, that is.
The irony is that it shouldn't matter if Obama knew the inspector general's report was coming or what it said. The important thing is that no one in the White House intervened to block, delay or change it.
But by getting its story wrong and revising it repeatedly, the White House has managed to make itself look guilty of something, whether it is or not. And that is prompting everyone else -- even some allies -- to invoke the Watergate question: What did he know and when did he know it?
"He has to come forward and give more of an answer than he has done," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y.
Here's another danger sign for Obama: His overall public approval is holding up, but it isn't translating into instant credibility on this issue.
A Pew Research Center poll released this week found that only 31 percent of the public believes that the IRS' Cincinnati cabal made its decisions without direction from higher-ups. A larger number, 42 percent, said they believe the administration ordered political scrutiny of conservative groups; 27 percent had no opinion. Many of those surveyed haven't followed the affair closely enough to form a view, but the numbers still aren't good.
Republicans are demanding a special prosecutor to investigate. Obama wants to avoid that path, for good reason: Special counsels take a long time. The prosecutor who investigated the leak of a CIA officer's identity during the George W. Bush administration took three years; the investigations of President Clinton took seven.
If Obama wants to avoid that fate, he's going to have to press McDonough and his insular staff to do more. They could start by heeding the advice they got during a quiet meeting last week of Democratic veterans of earlier scandals.
"You've got to get out in front of it," said Mike McCurry, who served as Clinton's spokesman during that president's darkest days. "Otherwise, you risk getting run over."
And when Congress asks for documents, the lawyers may advise the administration to resist -- but it should negotiate instead.
"The minute you start fighting over it, everybody will assume, rightly or wrongly, that you're trying to protect the president over something nefarious," former CIA General Counsel Jeffrey H. Smith noted.
If Obama can show that his lieutenants had nothing to do with the IRS' misdeeds, so much the better. But if he wants a quick end to the pain of this congressional inquiry, he needs to be more forthcoming.
Editor's note: Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at email@example.com.