Another quiet Friday evening on this quiet tree-lined street here in Hollywood, which is the way a week of turmoil should end – with the local classical station finally playing serene music again, after a week of only cheery fund-raising talk about music. It’s as if things are returning to normal, but then there was that brief string quartet by Puccini. He wrote string quartets too? Who knew? Life is full of pleasant surprises.
Unfortunately it’s also full of unpleasant surprises, because this was the end of National Scandal Week in Washington, perhaps the first of many, and scandals are all about surprises. Scandals are all about truth revealed – Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster with her bare hands, and Bill Clinton had been a major drug dealer back in Arkansas. No? Sometimes the truth that’s revealed isn’t exactly the truth. It takes some quiet-time to sort things out. There was the massive Benghazi cover-up, where Obama called it an act of terrorism and not a terrorist act, and the IRS scandal, where the IRS seemed to be picking on Tea Party organizations that had claimed they weren’t political at all, and the Associated Press scandal, where, on May 10, the Associated Press received a letter from the Department of Justice informing them that the government had acquired two months of their telephone records, causing quite an uproar.
All day Friday it was that House panel ripping into the former acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller – who had already resigned and had little new to say. There were a lot of nasty exchanges, but no one learned much of anything. There were no surprises. It was political theater, for political junkies, although if you lean Republican, it might have been quite satisfying even if there was no real news there. The proper things were said about how everyone is out to get them and big government, or the whole concept of government, is evil. That’s fine, but probably none of this scandal had been kitchen-table talk across America. Some folks in the IRS screwed up. It can be fixed. Republicans have been saying there’s much more to this – this is only the tip of the iceberg – but most of America seems fine with waiting for the full iceberg, if there is one. Republicans have a bad track record when it comes to producing that iceberg. This might be an ice cube bobbing in the water. Here it may take some quiet-time to sort things out, not that there will be much of that.
Slate’s Jacob Weisberg explains why:
Washington’s need for periodic scandal is almost biological. For legislators, it’s an opportunity to strut on the national stage. For the party out of power, it is politics by other means. For the press, it’s an escape from the boredom and frustration of a second term. Scandal means a break in the routine, a thrilling emergency. At some level, the whole political class loves it.
Of course he’s not saying scandals are never real:
Watergate was real. The Whitewater affair was not real but managed to be quite damaging to the Clinton administration anyway. Iran-Contra was real, but not damaging enough to turn Republicans out of office in 1988. Plamegate, which began with the question of who leaked the name of a clandestine CIA agent to a reporter, wasn’t real or damaging, though it did result in Dick Cheney and George W. Bush not speaking anymore.
The problem is that there are criteria for real scandals, and this one just won’t do at all:
What a scandal needs to count as real is an underlying crime. What it needs to be damaging is a strong story line. The Benghazi business falls short on both counts. This investigation posits that the top administration officials conspired to hide the truth about the September attack on an American consulate that resulted in the death of four diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Republican accusations about Benghazi derailed the nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
The charge against Rice was essentially that she delivered distorted political spin by calling the attacks spontaneous riots rather than a planned act of terrorism – the theory being that before the 2012 election, the Obama administration didn’t want to tarnish its success against al-Qaida. It emerged yesterday that Rice’s much-parsed Sunday television talking points were prepared not by the State Department but by the more politically independent CIA.
There was no iceberg, only claims of one:
In less tendentious perspective, Benghazi was a tragedy, a chain of errors that left a diplomatic outpost vulnerable. Even clearer is the political motivation behind that investigation, which is to embarrass Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination. When Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina fulminates that Benghazi is “every bit as damaging as Watergate,” the most accurate translation is, “I am facing a Republican primary challenge.” Last week, Graham survived that challenge and may now begin to calm down.
Lindsey Graham should calm down, because there’s something else going on, an iceberg of a different sort. Earlier there was ABC News’ Jonathan Karl with his big scoop – the amazing revelation of the White House’s direct role in twelve revisions to the Benghazi talking points, all made to make Obama and Hillary Clinton look competent just before the last election. The only problem was CNN’s Jake Tapper – his big scoop was that what the emails actually said wasn’t what ABC News had reported. Someone had lied to Karl, whose report implied that he was quoting actual emails between the State Department, the CIA, and the White House. Nope, they were actually summaries written by Republican congressional staffers who were allowed to read and take notes on the emails earlier this year. Their notes were not transcripts. ABC News had been burned – and then the White House released a hundred pages of the actual emails, to prove it. The whole sad story is covered in excruciating detail at Talking Points Memo – line by line and phrase by phrase if you like that sort of thing.
That turns one of the three scandals on its head. The Atlantic Wire summarizes who the bad guys really are in this scandal:
On February 15, the general counsel for the national intelligence director’s office briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee, leadership, and staff on the emails, according to the Associated Press. On March 19, there was a similar briefing in the House. Karl reports that included the members of the House Intelligence Committee, their staff, and a senior aide to Speaker John Boehner. (Boehner was invited, but sent an aide instead.) That’s a lot of people, though a lot less than all Republicans on Capitol Hill. It was 12 senators, plus the staffers who attended the meetings, and 12 representatives, plus Boehner’s aide.
And we can probably narrow the source even further, to just the House. A report by five House Republican committeemen made claims that seem based on the inaccurate summaries of the emails.
The House Republicans were messing with us all, which is a different iceberg entirely. They were also messing with ABC News, an issue which Michael Tomasky explores:
We know now that someone, shall we say, inaccurately described a key Benghazi-related email to Jonathan Karl of ABC. And that Karl didn’t represent his findings in a completely transparent way last week. I’m not going to go down deep into the weeds of all the details here. … I’ll just remind you of the context.
Remember, Karl’s scoop last week, timed to the testimony of the three consular aides, set off an earthquake. It appeared to show that the administration was chiefly concerned with how the State Department would look, and with doctoring the talking points to minimize political damage. That’s pretty damning stuff. It’s why a number of commentators who had theretofore said Benghazi was nothing was now something. It’s why a lot of people said Jay Carney had lied about the talking points.
That makes this a journalism scandal, and Jonathan Karl has a problem:
He trusted a source, and that source fucked him. What should he and ABC do? Do you stand by sources who you know lied to you? There are certain circumstances when “burning” a source is considered permissible. Suppose you were a journalist and a source told you someone had committed a felony but that person had not. Do you have to protect that source? No.
ABC News, if you ask me, has had a worse week than Obama, not that as many people are paying attention. But consider. CNN and Jake Tapper got the actual emails, proving beyond a doubt that ABC and Karl were wrong.
It only got worse, as Tomasky links to something extraordinary – on CBS, Scott Pelley and Major Garrett basically calling their ABC colleagues liars – which may be bad form, but the news is a competitive business.
Still, Tomasky returns to what actually matters:
The bigger issue here of course is not a media issue, but what in fact happened. What the emails show is awfully boring and un-juicy. They show government employees trying to be careful about jumping to conclusions – not in an attempt to cover ass, but so as not to prejudice an ongoing investigation. Victoria Nuland [of the State Department] didn’t want members of Congress to be out there blaming Ansar al-Sharia for the attack not out of any concern for Hillary Clinton, but for the basic reason that the investigation wasn’t complete and there was no proof of the group’s involvement.
There’s no scandal here:
The GOP’s main political charge here is that the administration covered up Benghazi because it was an election year. But on September 20, the president’s official mouthpiece (Carney) acknowledged that it was a terrorist attack, so Republicans had about 46 days in which to make political hay of that admission. Nobody hid anything.
Yes, mistakes were made at State – and remember, three people did lose their jobs. The record up to today suggests that the government is a good measure more trustworthy than ABC News – and, don’t forget, than whoever it was (surely a GOP source of some kind) who lied to Karl in the first place.
That’s a new scandal, not the original one – it’s a different iceberg entirely. Some Republican aide may be fired over this – that very thing has happened before – and ABC News will sooner or later have to say something, Life is full of surprises.
As for the IRS scandal, Jacob Weisberg offers this:
What actually seems to have happened is this: In 2010, a spate of conservative groups was applying for tax-exempt status. This designation is available to organizations whose main activity is not political, so most of the groups were running a kind of scam by asking for it. Low-level employees in a Cincinnati field office thought they could create a shortcut by watching out for red-flag political terms like “patriots” and “9/12” on the applications. The IRS inspector general has persuasively concluded that this was an instance of bureaucratic overzealousness meeting a vague standard, not politically motivated, and not criminal.
But this kind of scandal can succeed even where it fails the reality test, thanks to bipartisan cowardice. No politician wants to defend the IRS. So President Obama has done his best to appear furious about what happened, and the Justice Department has announced a criminal investigation, and the Treasury has forced the IRS acting commissioner, who may or may not have done anything wrong, to resign.
Feeding the wolves in this way is a bad idea; they know where their next meal is to be had. As the fever takes hold, any additional controversy – such as the Justice Department’s subpoena of Associated Press phone records in pursuit of a leak – is accorded scandal status. The administration is officially “beset” and “besieged.”
That seems to be the case:
On Thursday, during a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, Obama signaled to two Marines and asked them to protect him and his guest from the rain.
“I am going to go ahead and ask folks – why don’t we get a couple of Marines, they’re going to look good next to us. Just because I’ve got a change of suits, but I don’t know about our prime minister.” Gesturing to the unprotected press, he added, “You guys, I’m sorry about…”
That was a bad move, as male Marines are not allowed to use umbrellas while in uniform, and the reaction was immediate:
The conservative Daily Caller wrote up the incident with the headline, “Obama breaches Marine umbrella protocol.”
“Mr. President, when it rains it pours, but most Americans hold their own umbrellas,” former Alaska governor Sarah Palin tweeted.
“These guys aren’t valets,” one conservative blogger wrote, though he also guessed that previous presidents had done the same thing “because the optics are sufficiently bad that Team O wouldn’t have tried it without precedent to cite in its defense.”
There were also the internet comments like these:
Just another occasion where Obama shows his “superiority” to any and everyone around him! Shameful!
Just another example of the illegitimate Kenyan illegal alien’s arrogance, ignorance, and contempt for the military – and the Marine Corps in particular.
Next they’ll be carrying shopping bags for Michelle as she strolls ‘Miracle Mile’ looking for a bargain.
I would roll that umbrella up and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Kenyan Fraud!
Yes, it was the Great Umbrella Scandal. Someone really does need some quiet-time to sort things out. The Marines weren’t upset at all. That wasn’t the tip of any iceberg.
These excitable people may have a point with the IRS scandal however, but David Weigel explains, the iceberg, of which they see the tip, isn’t quite what they think:
In theory, the civil-servant structure should make an organization less prone to an eruption of bias or of hive-mind behavior. But that’s not how it works. Liberals are more likely to enter the civil service, and to stick to it, than conservatives are. And why not? Conservatives want to shrink the size of government; Republicans have negotiated deals federally, and in the states, that slashed or froze the size of the bureaucracies.
Weigel’s point is that the public sector is no place for a libertarian:
Every single number proves this. Tim Carney has collected the campaign finance figures for IRS employees nationally and in the Cincinnati office. In the past three election cycles, IRS workers donated $247,000 to Democrats and $145,000 to Republicans. In Ohio, the number was skewed even further – 75 percent to Democrats. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, around 40 percent of unionized federal employees identified as Democrats; only 27 percent identified as Republicans. State and local government employees are far more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.
If you check the timing of that poll, you realize something about how obvious this all is. Gallup went into the field to quiz bureaucrats because Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was rolling back collective bargaining rights for state employees. Doing so, as Republicans knew, would weaken a constituency that was inclined to vote for Democrats after filling their campaign accounts.
In short, these guys are in government because they believe in government. What did the Tea Party Crowd expect?
Weigel is careful to say that’s not an excuse for what they did, but it is an explanation:
In the Inspector General’s report, you encounter bureaucrats presented with a challenge – “some organizations were classified as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations but operated like political organizations” – and responded by drafting a “Be on the Look-Out” (or BOLO) memo with some anthropological advice about conservatives. Any application with “Tea Party” or “Patriots,” or “9/12 Project” in the name was flagged, as was referring to “government spending, government debt or taxes.” …
Based on what we know about the sort of people who aspire to become IRS commissioners, how much direct knowledge did they probably have about the conservative movement? How much did they fear it? So far in this story, Republicans have raced to find answers tying low-level IRS behavior to directives from the Obama administration, or table-pounding from Democrats who were worried about 501s like American Crossroads or Americans for Prosperity. But you don’t need to make that leap to explain why civil servants working for a tax-collection agency – the very heart of the Leviathan – might have been extra-skeptical of conservative groups.
That would mean that if the Republicans insist that heads should roll – that there be mass firings – then those who apply for the now-vacant positions will be exactly the same sort of folks, those who believe in government. Their kind of folks won’t apply – they hate the work itself. Actually they hate that such work even exists. That also means there really were no directives from the Obama administration in this whole mess. This happened spontaneously and inevitably. The Republicans see the tip of an iceberg they really don’t understand at all – and the idea that they seek tax breaks from the government they think should be shrunk so small it can finally be drown in the bathtub is more than ironic. Perhaps the actual thing that scandalizes them is that some people still think government is useful.
It doesn’t matter. This is only the tip of the iceberg? Most folks would just as soon wait for the iceberg itself:
A majority of Americans are following both the controversy over the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi and the brewing IRS scandal – but at levels below historic averages, according to a new poll.
Fifty-four percent said they are closely following the story of how the IRS unfairly targeted conservative groups, according to the Gallup survey on Thursday, and 53 percent are closely following Benghazi. For both stories, 22 percent were following “not too closely” and 24 weren’t following at all.
“The level of attention being paid to each is below the average 60 percent of Americans who have closely followed more than 200 news stories Gallup has measured over the past several decades,” Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport wrote in an analysis of the poll.
Of course this is what one would expect:
Republicans are more likely to be paying attention to both controversies. Two-thirds of the GOP says they are following both scandals. Only 40 percent of Democrats are following the IRS story, with 45 percent keeping a close eye on Benghazi.
While 74 percent of Americans believe the IRS scandal should be investigated and 79 percent said the same of Benghazi, there are large partisan differences. Seventy-six percent of Republicans “strongly agree” Benghazi should be probed, compared to only 27 percent of Democrats.
It may have been National Scandal Week in Washington, but not elsewhere. Elsewhere it was a quiet evening at the end of a week of far too much nonsense. But Puccini helps.