Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that President Obama’s White House counsel was told about the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups weeks before this policy was made public by the IRS. Purportedly, this information was not passed to President Obama. White House officials and their supporters outside have justified this failure by saying that they did not want to interfere with an ongoing investigation. This is nonsense.
There are two types of internal investigations — those that seek to determine whether wrongdoing has occurred, and those that are supposed to determine how and why it occurred. In this case, it was clear that the wrongdoing had occurred. The president, when he was finally told about it, took action, terminating the acting head of the IRS at the time and installing a new temporary acting commissioner. This action in itself demonstrates that there was no ambiguity about what was done. The dismissed official had not ordered it; he had learned about it and had simply covered it up. His testimony to a House committee last week made clear that he didn’t see it as a serious matter.
In the Iran-Contra matter, when President Reagan learned that Oliver North had diverted government funds to the Contras, North and the president’s national security adviser at the time, John Poindexter, were immediately dismissed. If the president had waited until all the investigations were done, North and Poindexter would have continued serving for years in the Reagan administration, even though they had engaged in criminal conduct. The termination of North and Poindexter actually impeded the investigation, because they immediately lawyered up and refused to supply the White House with information about what they did and why. Indeed, some Democrats charged that North and Poindexter were fired for the purpose of impeding the investigation, but the alternative — clearly inadmissible — was to have the American people believe that that President Reagan approved of what they had done.
In failing to advise President Obama immediately of what had happened at the IRS — if that’s what actually occurred — his staff did him a grave disservice. It leaves open the possibility that they and he — in the midst of the presidential election campaign — saw nothing wrong with what the IRS had done. In that case, the analogies to Watergate are not as far-fetched as some have suggested.
Peter Wallison was White House counsel during the Iran-Contra affair.