WASHINGTON—In President Barack Obama’s recent campaign-style swing across the nation he has set up Congress—Republicans to be exact—as the villains foiling his preferred policies before they can be used to help the struggling American middle class. One of his favorite lines is to mention “phony scandals,” which he labels as “part of an endless parade of distractions.”
“And we keep on shifting our way—shifting our attention away from what we should be focused on,” Obama said Tuesday in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The next day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney filled in the details on what scandals the president was talking about.
“And what we’ve seen as time has passed and more facts have become known—whether it’s about the attacks in Benghazi and the talking points, or revelations about conduct at the IRS—that attempts to turn this into a scandal have failed,” Carney told reporters at his daily briefing. “I think there was a period where there was—a lot more energy and focus was paid by some in Congress as well as in the media on issues that, while important, are not of the highest priority to the American people, and they were not scandals.”
House Speaker John Boehner surprised few political observers when he seized on these statements.
“There is nothing phony about these scandals,” Boehner said at his weekly press conference Thursday. “Not when four Americans are dead. Not when the agency enforcing your healthcare law has been harassing Americans because of their political beliefs.”
Indeed there has been movement on both of these fronts. On Thursday night, CNN unveiled a special report claiming that the CIA had “dozens” of operatives on the ground in Benghazi, Libya, at the U.S. Consulate on the night of the attack last year that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, among others. Those CIA employees, according to CNN, are being given monthly polygraph tests to make sure information is not leaked about the operations they were conducting in Libya when the terrorist strike occurred.
The revelations, if true, add to the remaining questions about the incident.
“One of the pertinent questions today is why we have not captured or killed the terrorist who committed these attacks,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who was talking to reporters on Capitol Hill after another CNN report included an interview with one of the suspects behind the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Ahmed Abu Khattala, who is reportedly a leader of a group affiliated with al-Qaeda. “How come the FBI isn’t doing this and yet CNN is?”
A group of eight Republican lawmakers have written a letter to new FBI Director James Comey asking him to brief Congress about the investigation within 30 days. Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has issued two new subpoenas demanding U.S. State Department documents tied to the assault. Issa, a California Republican, wants to turn the documents over to an independent review board that is investigating the incident.
In the meantime, despite the White House’s phony label to the Benghazi attack, officials are closing some embassies in the Middle East and North Africa this weekend due to reports of threats of additional plots linked to al-Qaeda.
The White House’s other phony scandal—the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service—also continues to show legs despite efforts to dismiss it. The Thomas More Society on Thursday submitted additional information to the U.S. House detailing more evidence of pro-life organizations caught in the IRS’s crosshairs.
“Despite claims to the contrary, the IRS continues to target and harass pro-life and conservative charities, illegally questioning their religious activities and withholding tax exemptions,” said Peter Breen, the Thomas More Society’s vice president and senior counsel.
The conservative law organization in May disclosed evidence showing how the IRS has scrutinized three pro-life groups (see “Agent exegesis” from the June 15 issue of WORLD Magazine). The legal society’s new documents now highlight the IRS hassles faced by three additional pro-life groups: Cherish Life Ministries, LIFE Group, and Emerald Coast Coalition for Life. Applying for 501(c)(3) charitable status, these groups were repeatedly asked questions about time spent in prayer at abortion facilities and were told they must provide education representing both sides of the abortion issue. Two of the groups were falsely denied tax exempt status, and all three had decisions delayed by up to 16 months after their applications were singled out for further review. The status for one of the pro-life groups, Emerald Coast Coalition for Life, remains in limbo.
This is in line with a recent House Ways and Means Committee report of more than 100 groups—both conservative and left-leaning—that applied for tax-exempt status with the IRS. The report found that conservative groups were asked an average of three times more questions than liberal groups when the IRS sent letters for additional information. While only 46 percent of the conservative groups in the review gained approval, all the groups with the word “progressive” in their name gained tax-exempt approval by the IRS. There are still 56 conservative groups with outstanding cases before the IRS, according to the committee’s report.
“Congress will continue to investigate how the targeting began, why it was allowed to continue for so long, and what the IRS is doing to resolve this,” said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., the chairman of the committee.
Issa has sent a letter to the IRS claiming that the agency has “attempted to delay, frustrate, impede, and obstruct the Committee’s investigation.” He claims there are 64 million pages of documents identified by the IRS relating to this targeting scandal. But the agency has only turned in 12,000 pages (0.019 percent) of those documents to the House Oversight Committee.
Despite labeling the IRS activities a phony scandal, Obama still thought it necessary to name a new head of the tax agency. On Thursday the president announced that John Koskinen, who has experience as a crisis manager in both the corporate and government world, would be the new commissioner of the IRS. Koskinen has donated $25,600 to Democratic candidates and causes since 2007, including $7,300 to Obama. That may give conservatives pause considering he has been tapped to help the IRS overcome its tendency to target conservative groups.
But Koskinen, 74, helped mortgage buyer Freddie Mac survive its implosion during the financial crisis. He also helped a failed life insurance company, Mutual Benefit Life, and a bankrupt transportation company, Penn Central, reorganize. But this may be Koskinen’s first attempt to restructure an organization undergoing a phony scandal.