Jeffrey Toobin for The New Yorker: When You Shouldn't Tell the President

May 23rd, 2013

Senate Finance Hearing on IRS Selective Scrutiny

The New Yorker
By Jeffrey Toobin
May 23, 2013

When you can’t prove that the White House did anything wrong, and you can’t prove that the White House knew that someone else was doing something wrong, what do you try to prove? That the White House knew there was an investigation into whether someone else was doing something wrong! That may sound scandalous, but, in fact, it’s perfectly appropriate.

That’s the lesson of the past several days in the evolving (and probably shrinking) Internal Revenue Service matter. Washington scandals and pseudoscandals follow a familiar pattern. First, there is an allegation of wrongdoing. Second, there is the question of a coverup: Who knew what when? (This dates from Howard Baker’s famous question at the Senate Watergate hearings: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”)

The current I.R.S. matter is typical of the genre, though everything is accelerated at Internet speed. Last Friday, we learned that the I.R.S. apparently “targeted” conservative organizations that were seeking an advantageous tax status. It remains to be seen how many of these groups actually deserved the benefits of Section 501(c)(4) that they were seeking, but it does appear that some inappropriate ideological screening of applicants went on. (Lois Lerner, the I.R.S. official who oversaw the program, revealed Tuesday that she would be taking the Fifth Amendment before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.) It was immediately clear that neither President Obama nor anyone in the White House ordered the alleged I.R.S. misconduct. So the question became what the White House “knew” about the wrongdoing.

Read More