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Mark Fabiani

May 22, 2013
  • Updated May 16, 2013, 7:49 p.m. ET

Democrats Press Obama Over IRS

Former White House Staffers Want a More Aggressive Response; GOP Fundraising Boost Is Feared



[image]Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, left, listens as Sen. Rand Paul, right, speaks on Thursday about the IRS scandal.

Some Democrats anxious about the unfolding controversy at the Internal Revenue Service believe President Barack Obama didn’t quell the uproar by ousting the agency leader. They say he needs to act more aggressively to shore up his political standing and blunt any Republican fundraising boost flowing from the episode.

Mr. Obama announced Wednesday that acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller would step down over the targeting of conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. And the president suggested at a news conference on Thursday that other people might face disciplinary action, vowing to “hold accountable those who had taken these outrageous actions.”

But he rejected the idea of appointing a special prosecutor to look into the IRS controversy, saying that Justice Department and congressional probes, as well as a just-completed Treasury inspector general’s report, were sufficient to show “exactly what happened, who was involved, what went wrong.”

One veteran of a past Democratic administration said that Mr. Obama should give serious consideration to hiring a special counsel to examine the IRS’s actions, rather than rely on his own Justice Department.

“An investigation of yourself, no matter how well done, will not be credible to many people,” said Mark Fabiani, who served as a special counsel to President Bill Clinton. “I just don’t see how an investigation run by the administration will be seen as credible to the doubters.”

Another Democrat, Lanny Davis, said White House officials should have moved more decisively at an earlier stage. Mr. Obama has said he first learned about the IRS controversy from news reports on Friday. A few weeks earlier, the White House counsel’s office was notified “very broadly” about the “potential activity” involving the IRS, White House spokesman Jay Carney said this week.

Once the counsel’s office knew about a potential misuse of IRS power, Mr. Obama should have been informed immediately, said Mr. Davis, also a special counsel to Mr. Clinton. Similarly, Mr. Obama shouldn’t have waited for the inspector general’s report on the IRS, which was released Tuesday, before taking disciplinary action against IRS staff, Mr. Davis said.

“The president should have reacted much more strongly and much sooner,” Mr. Davis said. “You can’t manage a media crisis passively or reactively.”

A senior administration official declined to discuss the internal decision-making.

Without singling out current White House officials, former Obama aides have publicly called for the president’s team to move more forcefully. David Axelrod, a former White House adviser, on Wednesday said the White House should release emails related to the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead last year. Hours later, the documents were made public.

Robert Gibbs, who served as White House press secretary for Mr. Obama, said Tuesday in a television appearance that the administration’s response to the IRS scandal sounded passive. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama adopted tougher rhetoric when announcing the departure of the IRS head.

Some Democrats worry the controversy will give Republicans a fundraising bump heading into the 2014 elections, playing into conservative distrust of government bureaucracy and taxes. “The IRS controversy will be manna from heaven for fundraising on the right wing,” said Andrei Cherny, former chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party.

GOP lawmakers and their allies are trying to use the IRS controversy to boost opposition to Mr. Obama’s health-care law, citing the role that the law gives the IRS in collecting information about individual Americans’ health-insurance coverage and administering penalties for people who lack it.

“We all know what’s going on with the IRS today,” Rep. Charles Boustany (R., La.) said in the House Thursday during debate on Republicans’ latest effort to repeal the health-care law. “How can we trust an entity like that to enforce this abomination of a health-care law?”

Republican lawmakers also invoked the IRS controversy in a bid to thwart a regulatory effort that could require publicly traded companies to disclose political contributions.

At a House Financial Services Committee hearing Thursday, Republican lawmakers pushed Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Jo White to abandon plans to require such spending disclosures, saying the IRS scandal illustrated how information can be misused.

“Given the ongoing concerns being raised by the American public about this administration’s attempting to bully organizations that disagree with them politically…can you commit formally today to removing the mention of a corporate political-disclosure requirement?” Rep. Scott Garrett (R., N.J.) asked Ms. White, who said that the SEC was still reviewing the issue.

Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist, said the White House initially was too hesitant in responding to the IRS case and two other controversies—the Justice Department’s seizure of journalist phone records in a leak investigation, and the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack.

“They seemed genuinely caught off-guard by each of these things,” Mr. Jordan said.

The administration’s response took a turn for the better strategically during the last 48 hours, he said, and now appears clearer and more forceful.

—Kristina Peterson, Siobhan Hughes and Andrew Ackerman contributed to this article.

Write to Peter Nicholas at and Colleen McCain Nelson at

A version of this article appeared May 17, 2013, on page A4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Democrats Press Obama Over IRS.


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