“Congressional investigators are fuming over revelations that the Internal Revenue Service has lost a trove of emails to and from a central figure in the agency’s tea party controversy.”
That’s the opening sentence of the Associated Press story on the IRS’s claim that it lost an unknown number of emails over two years relating to the agency’s alleged targeting of political groups hostile to the president.
But note how the AP casts the story: The investigators — Republican lawmakers — are outraged.
Is it really so hard to imagine that if this were a Republican administration, the story wouldn’t be the frustration of partisan critics of the president? It would be all about that administration’s behavior. With the exception of National Journal’s Ron Fournier, who called for a special prosecutor to bypass the White House’s “stonewalling,” and former CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, it’s hard to find a nonconservative journalist who thinks this is a big deal.
Let’s back up for a moment. In 2013, IRS official Lois Lerner planted a question from an audience member at an American Bar Association meeting. She used her answer to apologize for, and favorably spin, the agency’s actions, and then later claimed that the apology came as an unprompted response to a question.
Lerner laid the blame for the inappropriate targeting of tea party and other groups to a few low-level bureaucrats in Cincinnati. That was a lie. Senior officials in the IRS knew and helped to coordinate the effort. She said she only heard about the problem when tea party groups protested. The targeting, in fact, had already been under internal and external investigation.
In short, Lerner worked hard at denying her agency’s tactics on applications for nonprofit status from groups deemed to be hostile to the president’s agenda. According to IRS officials’ congressional testimony, agents were told to “be on the lookout” for groups that “criticized how the government is being run.” Lerner even joked to colleagues that she should get a job at Obama’s activist group Organizing for Action.
President Barack Obama insists he didn’t know about any of this until he was briefed on it the way he’s briefed on so many issues: from news reports. Nevertheless, we’ve since learned that White House officials were aware earlier.
Lerner, who was forced to resign, took the Fifth Amendment rather than clear the air.
In the June issue of Commentary, Noah Rothman notes that the mainstream media initially treated the IRS story as a very big deal. ABC’s Terry Moran dubbed it a “truly Nixonian abuse of power by the Obama administration.” But as Rothman notes, the media were just as quick to buy the story that this was a minor bureaucratic screw-up being whipped up into what the president called yet another “phony scandal.”
More recently, Obama proclaimed there was not even a “smidgen” of corruption at the IRS, despite the fact his administration’s own investigations are still underway. Obama’s assurance seemed good enough for most of the media.
This is one of the great public relations turnaround stories of all time. Liberal groups successfully spun the incident as a well-intentioned mistake by a government agency trying to deal with a deluge of new applications from right-wing crazies let loose by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The “real” story was — again — Republican overreach.
Never mind that there was no evidence for such an “uptick” in applications — Lerner’s word. Indeed, evidence suggests that Lerner went looking for that evidence as an excuse for abuses she had already undertaken.
So now the IRS claims that a computer crash has irrevocably erased pertinent emails (an excuse I will remember when I am audited). National Review’s John Fund reports that the IRS manual states backups must exist. If emails — which exist on servers, clouds and elsewhere — can be destroyed this way, someone should tell the NSA that there’s a cheaper way to encrypt data.
The storied City News Bureau of Chicago famously lived by the motto “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” The bureau closed down several years ago. Perhaps that kind of skepticism died with it.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a columnist for Tribune Media.