TOPICS > Politics

White House Works to Calm Storm of Scandal

May 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Barack Obama used a rainy, Rose Garden news conference to get in front of a series of political storms, tackling questions on the IRS scandal, the AP subpoenas and Benghazi. Judy Woodruff talks to White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri about how the Obama administration is responding to various crises.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama stepped up his efforts today to calm a series of political storms. And word came that a second senior IRS official is stepping down after admissions that conservatives came in for special scrutiny. The president addressed that and other issues at a rain-spattered appearance outside the White House.

The occasion was a Rose Garden meeting with reporters, and the prime minister of Turkey was the guest of honor, but most of the questions had to do with domestic matters, first and foremost, the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. You should be equally outraged at even the prospect that the IRS might not be acting with the kind of complete neutrality that we expect.

And I think we’re going to be able to fix it. We’re going to be able to get there and get it done. And we have — we have already begun that process and we’re going to keep on going until it — until it’s finished.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not long afterward came word that Daniel Werfel, a White House budget official, is being named acting commissioner of the IRS.

The president had announced the forced resignation of his predecessor, Steven Miller, on Wednesday evening. Miller was joined today by Joseph Grant, head of the division that oversees requests for tax-exempt status. He will retire next month.

That followed revelations that the agency had zeroed in on groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names when they sought tax-exempt status. In Congress today, Republicans welcomed Miller’s departure, but they said the investigations must continue.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul:

SEN. RAND PAUL, R-Ky.: Someone needs to be held responsible. Someone needs to be imprisoned. Someone needs to be prosecuted. The resignation is a step in the right direction, but we need to find out who wrote this policy, who approved this policy, and they need to be held accountable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in the Rose Garden, the president also was pressed about the Justice Department’s subpoena of phone records from the Associated Press. The seizures apparently were part of an investigation into leaks about a foiled terrorist plot.

Mr. Obama voiced support for a new media shield law. But he said freedom of the press must be balanced against national security as well.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: When we express concern about leaks at a time when I’ve still got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, and I’ve still got a whole bunch of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations — in outposts that, in some cases, are as dangerous as the outpost in Benghazi — that part of my job is to make sure that we’re protecting what they do, while still accommodating for the need for information — or the need for the public to be informed and be able to hold my office accountable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on a third front, the White House is trying to deflate criticism of its response to last year’s attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

Last night, officials released some 100 pages of e-mails related to the initial administration public talking points that eventually dropped any reference to terrorist threats or al-Qaida.

House Speaker John Boehner said today, it’s a good first step, but he said, the administration must do more.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: We have a job to get to the truth. And the administration can make this a lot easier by doing what they started to do yesterday, turning over e-mails from Benghazi. But they could make this a lot simpler by being up front with the Congress and being up front with the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans promise more hearings on all of this, starting tomorrow when a House committee will hear from the outgoing IRS leader, Steven Miller.

For more, we turn to White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

And first on the IRS, Republicans are saying, yes, it’s fine, the president forcing these resignations, but they are saying there has to be more. There have to be prosecutions. People need to go to prison.

Does the president agree?

JENNIFER PALMIERI, White House Communications Director: Well, you know, the steps that he has that he’s taken on the IRS was, you know, first thing we wanted to do was to let the inspector general’s report conclude that investigation, that investigation to conclude.

That’s happened. We have the report. There’s a lot of disturbing — there’s a lot of disturbing facts about how the place was managed in that report. And the president asked Secretary Lew, secretary of the treasury, to go back now and figure out exactly what happened and hold people who are accountable, accountable for this mismanagement.

So, the first action was that Secretary Lew asked yesterday for the acting commissioner’s resignation and received that. You noted that there was another — there was another administrative action on personnel there today. So we still think that there’s more work to be done here on our end with the work that Secretary Lew will do in following through on the — what the I.G. recommended.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when the Republican …

JENNIFER PALMIERI: So, that’s one — but then I would also — I would note that we think that Congress has a legitimate oversight role to play, and we would certainly — we welcome that and we would certainly cooperate with that.

But it needs to stay within the bounds of the substance and keep the politics out of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So does the president agree there should be prosecutions?

JENNIFER PALMIERI: Well, the attorney general, Eric Holder, has started a criminal investigation, so we will let that process move forward and let them make whatever appropriate conclusions that they make.

But he thinks that — but he does, obviously, think that there’s a management problem here, appeared to be systematic, that that needs to get addressed. And we are — Secretary Lew is moving quickly on that front. This is an issue that the American — we understand the American people have legitimate — real, legitimate concerns making sure that the IRS in particular wouldn’t have political motivations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jennifer Palmieri, the president is not only being criticized for what has happened, but also for how he’s handled it, not just Republicans but a number even Democrats are saying the White House was slow to respond, the president has been passive, not proactive enough.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: I know that it comes with the territory when you — as president, that a couple of things are going to happen. One is that there’s going to be unfortunate — as much as you try to protect against them, there’s going to be unfortunate problems in government.

And the other is that there’s going to be controversies that arise. And, as someone who does communications, I think you always want to respond quickly. And that is your first instinct. But the worst thing you can do is respond in a way before — before you have the facts or respond in a way that would get you into more trouble over the long term.

So, in this situation, you know, we had — we wanted to wait until the inspector general came out with the report from the IRS, so we actually had some facts before we acted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I hear you.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: And to not have done that, for us to have intervened ahead of time, you know, that’s where you get into trouble.

And so it’s — I — it’s not worth getting an eight-hour or 12-hour jump on making news on an issue, if the consequence of that is you’re creating a larger problem that you’re dealing with for years. And, you know, I have seen that happen, certainly many times before.

So we wanted to get it right. And we got it right. And the president has dealt with all, you know, three of these issues that arose this week, and, most importantly, I think moved it back to the substance of dealing with the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you, that the president clearly does have a big agenda for his second term.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How frustrated is he that all of this controversy is clearly detracting, if not undermining, his ability to get that done?

JENNIFER PALMIERI: Yes.

Like I said, we understand this comes with the territory. And there’s always going to be some measure of distraction like this. And we feel that we’re dealing with it. Did we have a week where — that a lot of attention on issues that we hadn’t anticipated? Yes.

But during that week, the president was also meeting on housing. He had a meeting with Sen. McCain yesterday, talked about immigration reform. We had a meeting today on implementation of health care. We’re continuing to work with Congress on student loan reform.

So, it may not be getting attention, but the work of the country is continuing. And we under — we have got to deal with these issues, and we are, and we think that the attention will turn back to the actual work of the country that the president is focused on. And, you know, it comes with the territory that you may — that you’re going to have times where you will lose attention to other issues, other unexpected issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is even though Republicans are saying they’re going to keep at this for weeks to come through the summer.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: Well, the House — House Republicans have done that the last couple of years. Congressman Issa’s committee has had lots of investigations, lots of hearings.

And we cooperate, as appropriate, in those. And we continue on with our business. So the — we are able to manage through those — through those kinds of — those kinds of hearings and that kind of process. And you have got to manage that and you have got to deal with it. But you have to stay focused on the main highway of what you’re actually trying to get accomplished, and you got to be able to — you have got to just — you have to be able to do both of those things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jennifer Palmieri, White House communications director, thank you.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: Thanks, Judy.