GWEN IFILL: The S word rules the week, but when is a scandal truly scandalous and when is it politics as usual? We break it down for you, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Congress in full cry.
REPRESENTATIVE LYNN JENKINS (R-KS): (From tape.) I’m sad and I’m sick to my stomach that Americans could be targeted by a government agency based on their political beliefs.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From tape.) In the span of four days, three major revelations about the use of government power to intimidate those who are doing things that the government doesn’t like. These are the tactics of the third world.
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From tape.) My question isn’t about who’s going to resign. My question is who’s going to jail over this scandal.
MS. IFILL: The White House and its supporters in full defensive crouch.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) The misconduct that it uncovered is inexcusable. It’s inexcusable and Americans are right to be angry about it and I am angry about it.
SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV): (From tape.) They’re hyperventilating about Benghazi. President Obama was absolutely right to call this a side show. This is about smear politics and nothing else.
MS. IFILL: The IRS, Benghazi, the leak investigation of the Associated Press.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: (From tape.) It put the American people at risk. And that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk and trying to determine who’s responsible for that I think required very aggressive action.
MS. IFILL: An irresistible Washington train wreck. How many heads will roll and can the president recover? We sort through a raucous week with the best in the business: Gloria Borger of CNN, John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News, John Harwood of CNBC and the \New York Times, And Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. This week saw a remarkable collision of outrage and investigation, printing and politics. And as the week ends, we still haven’t really gotten to the bottom of the unfolding messes at the Justice Department, the State Department, the IRS, and ultimately, the White House.
We’ll try to put them into some context for you tonight one by one. We start with arguably the worst of the three – signs that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative tea party groups for special scrutiny. The acting chief, Steven Miller was forced out, and today, he was hold before a House committee to explain why it happened. This was the gist of his defense.
STEVEN MILLER: I do not believe that partisanship motivated the people who engaged in the practices described in the Treasury inspector general’s report. I’ve reviewed the Treasury inspector general’s report and I believe its conclusions are consistent with that. I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection.
MS. IFILL: The good news is there was bipartisan outrage, all directed at the government agency taxpayers love to hate, the IRS, not with new reason, Ed.
ED O’KEEFE: Not at all. The biggest news out of this is that the Treasury tax watchdog, a guy named J. Russell George, said that he began telling senior Treasury Department officials about the fact that he was looking into this last summer. It started with the general counsel and then the deputy treasury secretary. That piqued the interest of lawmakers of both parties because they said, well, then that means that perhaps they knew something in the months leading up to the presidential election. But beyond that, both the watchdog and Mr. Miller made clear we have reason to believe there’s partisanship here, just an attempt to somehow deal with a big influx of requests for this tax exempt status in the wake of the Citizens United case back in 2010.
They said there was a big concern that all of these different groups were beginning to apply that may or may not have known the rules. They say, look, employees looked at the news reports and new that there was concern that these various groups with names like tea party, patriot, 9/12, constitution were beginning to apply and they simply put them aside into a group and started looking at them.
MS. IFILL: And this dovetailed, guys, with this idea of government overreach, this idea that the government was – is doing more than it should be inserting itself in your lives.
GLORIA BORGER: Well, I think absolutely. I mean, this is – if you’re the president of the United States, who has been talking recently about the importance of government, citizenship, gave a commencement speech about it, the person who authored health care reform, which is a large government program, who wants the government to police the borders as part of immigration reform, when the credibility of the United States government is put on trial here, which is what we actually saw, this plays right into the hands of his political opponents who say, sorry, your – this doesn’t work.
Now, what they can do, of course, is overreach themselves. And Republicans have been known – remember the Lewinski case – have been known to kind of take this too far and the public could rebel against that as well. Well, we’ll have to see.
JOHN DICKERSON: There’s a way also in which this IRS scandal in particular bleeds over into other things. Seventy three percent of the country already doesn’t trust government, so is already a pretty small group of people who still trusted their government. But the argument from conservatives for ages has been even if there’s no wrongdoing, this is what happens when you have a big government. So let’s leave aside the question whether these people were politically motivated at the IRS. Just big government does things to get in the way of –
MS. IFILL: Does the work.
MR. DICKERSON: – your life. And so what’s happening now in the Congress? There’s a battle between, in the Senate, where they want to have a comprehensive immigration bill, and in the House, where they would like to do immigration in little pieces. And the argument is, do things in little pieces, tiny little pieces because if you do it too big, it’s going to have these unintended consequences. So that’s one way in which the IRS foul-up affects current legislation they’re trying to put together. And another thing, which is the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” the president’s health care –
MS. IFILL: The point I was about to make. It’s the same idea.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, the same idea, and also the IRS has a role, a big role in carrying out the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And so now conservatives, who, for a long time have said this ungainly big monster is going to mess up everyone’s life, now they can say, here we have an example of it, and here they’re going to be involved in it.
JOHN HARWOOD: But just one perspective note on this whole issue of government reaching into people’s lives. Let’s remember that the people affected by what happened at the IRS were reaching out to the government for a government benefit; that is, tax exempt status. It wasn’t the government going out and finding organizations and auditing their tax returns, right? This is not about audits. To me, the questions on IRS are, first of all, they’ve acknowledged that it was improper the way that they vetted these applications for tax exempt status. So that was wrong.
The additional question is, is it wrong because they were trying to do this for a partisan reason? You heard Steve Miller say, no, it wasn’t, but Republicans are going to keep probing and try to figure out the answer –
MS. IFILL: And a lot of Democrats who are unhappy with that answer to that question.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, no, not happy, but somebody’s got to prove or develop more evidence than has come out so far that that was the case. And the third question is, did it involve the White House? Did – was the White House involved either in making this happen or in condoning it? And we don’t have any evidence of that –
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s get – let’s get – but we’re going to come back – circle back to the rest of it, because there were two other big scandals that we want to touch on lightly before we get into the full analysis. And the second one was Benghazi, the clash that just won’t go away. The questions linger. Who saw the attack in Libya coming? Did the administration try to shift blame with laundered talking points? The president says it’s all politics.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) But the whole thing defies logic and the fact that this keeps on getting turned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations. If anybody out there wants to actually focus on how we make sure something like this does not happen again, I am happy to get their advice and information and counsel.
MS. IFILL: Hundreds of emails about the controversy were released this week. What have we learned from those, John?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, OK, where to begin. First, on John’s point, which is that IRS scandal has no connection to the White House. This is the controversy of the three we’re talking about that sits right in the White House. There’re also other groups involved. The main charge here – there are many and several charges here, but the main political charge is that once this terrible attack happened and there were four deaths, the Republican charge about the administration is that they concocted the story that the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to a video and to protests that were happening in Cairo based on this anti-Islamic video. And that this was a concocted story.
Furthermore, that part of the concocted story was that this was so spontaneous, it had no connection to existing terrorist organizations. How did this story get put together? It got put together in talking points, something we’re all very familiar with, but these are the lists of items that members of an administration or political allies go on TV and they’re given talking points. Talking points are not the product of Sodium Pentothal. They are usually – (laughter) – they are usually the details are fuzzed down. It’s usually all very kind of bland. So – but in the construction of these talking points, we learned, this last week that there were 12 iterations of the talking points, as the CIA weighed in, as the State Department weighed in, as the White House weighed.
And what became new about this controversy is the White House has said that only one word had been changed in these talking points. Now, these are the talking points that informed Susan Rice, when she went on TV, the U.N. ambassador, on the Sunday after this attack and informed the world about what the administration knew. So the president said this is a sideshow. No, this is about what the spokesperson for the administration told the world everybody in the administration believed. It is the show.
MS. IFILL: So the show was that this is – as it always is the case these days or it has been the case for some years, that it was about the cover-up, not about the actual crime.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, yes, but there’re two different kinds of cover-ups, which is why it gets complicated. But the main cover-up is the idea that this was not a spontaneous operation. It was a planned terrorist attack. But what we learned this week, when the emails were finally released by the White House under pressure because they’ve been leaked, what we learned was basically that it was the CIA which had first, in its very first sentence, had said, we believe that this was a spontaneous attack, based on what was happening in Cairo –
MR. HARWOOD: Which remained in every single version of the talking points.
MR. BORGER: And which turned out to be true.
MR. DICKERSON: Right.
MR. HARWOOD: Not, necessarily. No, the video portion, the idea that the video is what inspired it –
MR. BORGER: Right.
MR. HARWOOD: – may be untrue. In fact, they believe it’s untrue.
MR. BORGER: Right.
MR. HARWOOD: The idea that it was spontaneous; that is, that the people who perpetrated the attack may have decided opportunistically to take advantage of that moment, that has not been disproven.
MR. BORGER: But here’s the main point to me, which I learned from reading all these emails and reporting afterwards. If you want to lift the veil on how government doesn’t work, number one, look at these talking points. So it’s all these people weighing in and you finally end up with a bowl of mush, which might be actually wrong. OK.
Second thing is what we were witnessing, and you referenced to CIA here, what we were witnessing was essentially a struggle between the State Department and the CIA. Because what we didn’t know at the time was that Benghazi was a CIA operation, not a State Department – the State Department was providing the cover for the CIA. These talking points are there and they’re saying we knew this. We knew this. We knew this. And the people at the State Department were saying this makes it look like we were asleep at the switch and it’s your people.
MS. IFILL: But, Ed, why is this stuck? Why is this a story that never went away?
MR. O’KEEFE: It never went away because House Republicans, especially believed that there was always something more. And now that they have these emails, the fact that we’re talking about it at all to them is a victory. They continue to believe that, you know, that they haven’t heard necessarily everything they could from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the fact that this internal review that was done at the State Department didn’t involve actually talking to her about what she knew, even though the two people that wrote the report said that she didn’t know anything, so we didn’t bother having to talk to her about it. You know, that just sits out there.
The other big reason is Hillary Clinton herself – 2016 is coming, the thought is that she’s the Democratic frontrunner. Republicans are doing everything they can to deflate her wildly good poll numbers and see this as an opportunity. The big problem is – real quick – is that now House Republican leadership is saying, despite their genuine concerns and interest in this, be careful. You know, don’t overreach. Don’t turn this into a Lewinski-like scandal where we begin to look ridiculous for doing some things and saying things. Let’s do a measured response –
MR. HARWOOD: I think we’re already there.
MR. DICKERSON: Yeah.
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, some would say.
MR. DICKERSON: But part of it is that there was this information that what the White House had said about these talking points turned out not to be true. They were doctored then, they were – but the problem is were they doctored to create a cover story or just as a part of what Gloria describes, which is the push and pull of bureaucratic keister covering, which is what we saw in the emails. What the emails don’t show, though, is an orchestrated attempt by the White House to create a cover story. And that was the main charge. And so in that sense, they let the White House off the hook.
MS. IFILL: There’s a third leg of this three-legged stool of scandal this week. It’s a dispute that the White House is actually not backing away from and it’s the Justice Department’s decision to cease phone records from the Associated Press. Casting a really wide net of investigation into what it says are national security leaks that could have hurt Americans. But a lot of questions remain about how the Department of Justice went about it.
What do we know about that, Gloria?
MR. BORGER: Well, you played the clip from the attorney general before.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BORGER: He could not have been clearer – he said in his career, this was one of the two or three worse leaks, threatening national security. The president did not back away from it. He said, when we have leaks out of the government that threaten national security, we’ve got to investigate it. And by the way, Republicans in Congress called for this leak investigation.
This was, we believe, a story that was done by the Associated Press about al-Qaida trying to detonate a bomb that was thwarted in this country, clearly very, very dangerous story. What occurred – and again, this is where there’s a wall between the president and the Justice Department. You want a wall between the president and the Justice Department. This is not, you know, Richard Nixon saying, OK, you know, I got to control the Justice Department. There is a wall – after Watergate.
And the – what the Attorney General’s Office did, not the attorney general himself – we’ve now discovered he has recused himself on this – but they did a subpoena on the AP very broad, you know, hundreds of people were apparently affected. And the AP was not notified of the subpoena. This is important. So they had no opportunity to go to court, quash it, narrow it. They found out after the fact, so it was a secret subpoena, which is why the Associated Press went hog-wild about this and why you have more calls in Congress for journalists’ shield –
MS. IFILL: So first part of the stool is the specter of – I’m trying to remember – government overreach. The second part of it is the specter of government cover-up. And the third is, what? Constitutional intrusion?
MR. HARWOOD: Yes, so I don’t see the cover-up aspect of this.
MS. IFILL: No, I mean – of Benghazi, I was talking.
MR. HARWOOD: Oh, yes, right.
MR. BORGER: Benghazi, yes.
MR. O’KEEFE: You’re losing track. (Laughter.)
MR. HARWOOD: This one is fundamentally different from the others. First of all, it is a policy choice. It’s not a scandal per se. And the question is did they overreach? Did they go too far? Did they define too broadly the scope of what they – the records that they wanted? Did they make a mistake? Did they get the balance wrong by not talking to AP and negotiating the scope of this before? It also doesn’t fit in a partisan sense because Republicans, were it not the coincidence of these other scandals, wouldn’t care very much about this at all, and neither would the American people, to be honest. The people who care about this are civil libertarians and people in the press who want that line drawn as narrowly as possible.
But that’s a pretty straightforward question that’s hard to answer right now because it’s – because so much of the case is secret, but, you know, people can judge. Do they want an administration that is forward-leaning and more aggressive on First Amendment cases like that, or one this less so? And I think the White House can be confident they’re probably on the right side of that politically. Whether they are substantively –
MS. IFILL: You raise an interesting question, which is to what degree – we are consumed by these stories this week – but to what degree are American looking in this and saying, Benghazi, who did what, who wrote which email? AP, what do I – what is the AP, or even – but the IRS they get.
MR. DICKERSON: They get IRS, but in Benghazi four people died. And they also get that – you know what a presidency and a White House looks like when it’s crowing about foreign policy success. You see pictures of the president gesticulating in the Situation Room. Everybody in the administration goes to the podium and talks about all the heroic actions from here to here to here. The tone from the White House on Benghazi from the minute it happened has been tentative, shifting, crouching. Now, we –
MR. HARWOOD: Well, what would you expect (in a ?) terrible tragedy –
MR. DICKERSON: We deal with that. Well, right, but the instinct wasn’t we’re going to come clean. Now, we deal with that all the time. There’s nothing criminal about that. And that’s the distinction here, is that – it is that while the behavior has been kind of blame shifting, that’s different than what the charges have been, which is of cover-up. And that’s the thing there’s not enough evidence –
MR. BORGER: So they’re on – look, no White House like to play defense.
MR. DICKERSON: Of course.
MR. BORGER: Which is exactly what they have been –
MS. IFILL: But they have to or the story overtakes them.
MR. BORGER: Right. And by the way, in the same week, you’re playing defense on two scandals, pick a fight with the media that you didn’t want to pick on subpoenas, right? So they’re playing defense. You see the president went to Baltimore. He had a bunch of Democratic strategists in this week, including some alums of the Clinton administration, who –
MS. IFILL: Who know a thing or two about –
MR. BORGER: – know a thing about –
MR. HARWOOD: The Clinton A-Team was in there.
MR. BORGER: – damage control. The Clinton A-Team was in there. And they said, get him out of Washington, maybe even do a town hall, although I recall at your town hall the president had some trouble last time with a questioner.
MR. HARWOOD: In a bad way economically at that time –
MR. BORGER: She said I’m tired of defending you, she said, right? But – so they can be a little risky, but they said, you know, just – you’ve got to get out of this political sinkhole you’re in, in Washington.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about some of the unintended consequences of this week. One of them is that the tea party, which we had not heard much of for a long time is roaring back.
MR. O’KEEFE: Back – absolutely, I mean, this becomes a fundraising tool for them again. It reminds people that they existed. They’re relevant again. And it requires now the Republicans in Congress, and also frankly the national party apparatus to stand up for them because (they ?) understand that these are the base folks.
MR. HARWOOD: Yes, but it also is a potential problem for Republicans. Republicans’ problem, as we saw in the last election, is not that their base is not whipped up enough with antagonism toward President Obama and Democrats. Their problem is that their base is not wide enough. And the question is do any of the activities that are going on this week and what flows from them widen their base? Could the IRS be a story that helps them, depending on what comes out? Possibly.
MR. O’KEEFE: And you saw –
MR. BORGER: You know how it helps? You’re heading into a midterm election. Lots of these Republicans, including the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, were afraid of having primary challengers from the tea party. Now, Mitch McConnell is standing on the Senate floor and defends the tea party and every Republican can come in defense of the tea party, which was, as we know, wronged in this. Everyone agrees to that. So it kind of plays into them because the midterm elections, your base can be narrower because those are the people who turn out to vote.
MR. HARWOOD: Yeah, but some – the smarter Republicans have their eye on the long game.
MR. BORGER: Absolutely.
MR. HARWOOD: And the long game is they need more people to be open to their party. This is why, even if you have a continued (lathering ?) of this scandals, I would not expect Republicans to drop the idea of going forward on immigration reform. It is very important for the long-term future of the party. And I think the key Republicans strategists understand that.
MR. DICKERSON: You have to have people saying this is what the Republican Party believes. And to the extent that the news cycles are taken up by complicated scandals and exciting members of your caucus saying extraordinary things about these scandals, it just crowds out any chance that you can talk about immigration or you can talk about flex –
MS. IFILL: But it also crowds up talking about things like the military assaults – the sexual assaults in the military, which would be a huge story in another week about how widespread that is and how it’s been growing.
MR. O’KEEFE: And this is one that will continue through the rest of the year. The fact that you now have seven women on the Senate Armed Services Committee, all of whom are genuinely upset about this situation. They’ve drafted at least three different proposals on how they could change things. You’re right. In a week that didn’t have any of this, this would be the only thing we would be talking about.
And there’s a real push now and it crosses party lines, it crosses, you know, gender lines. Where I think there’s a big difference is generationally. You’ve seen a lot of the older lawmakers who’ve been around, who served in the military – John McCain, a bunch of the Republicans in the House Armed Services Committee – say they’re a little more concerned about making changes to how the chain of command would deal with this. But you’re seeing the younger lawmakers and the women who serve on the Armed Services Committee say no, enough is enough. It’s time to make a change.
MS. IFILL: So what – in our last minute or so, let’s look forward for a moment. So we know what’s going to happen with the tea party, with the IRS hearings. There’re going to be more. There’s going to be more conversation about that. We don’t know whether Benghazi has sorted itself out, whether it’s peaked, or whether there’s more shoes to drop. And we don’t know what’s going to happen with the AP investigation. What is the White House got planned to keep – stay ahead of this?
MR. BORGER: Well, I think they’re trying. I mean, they’re dancing as fast as they can. And I think that they’re going to try and pivot to turn back to immigration. I’m told lots of people believe they’re going to bring up gun control again. They don’t believe it’s got much of a shot now, in particular. But I –
MS. IFILL: Governing.
MR. BORGER: Right, governing –
MR. HARWOOD: Two big priorities.
MR. BORGER: – but look at John McCain. John McCain could be helpful on immigration. He’s their worst enemy on Benghazi.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. HARWOOD: Don’t forget the prospects for a budget deal as well. You’ve got tax reform, an effort going by Max Baucus and Dave Kemp. You’ve got new CBO numbers this week showing the deficit coming down rapidly. That means the kind of deal you would need to make further progress over the long run isn’t as big. Numbers aren’t as big. Might make it easier to do and all sides might have an incentive to get it done.
MR. DICKERSON: The question is if you’re a Republican who wants to work with the president, if your constituents will allow you, because your constituents are thinking the White House isn’t telling the truth. They’re thinking they’ve got the IRS going into their records. And so if you’re a Republican senator and you turn back to your constituents and say, buy this deal I’m selling you because you can trust the White House, they may think you’re nuts.
MS. IFILL: OK. But we have so much more to talk about and guess what, the conversation is going to end here, but it’s going to continue right as the program ends online, on our “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where we’ll talk about all of the other non-scandal news that lived in the shadow this week, including the 37th vote to repeal the health care law. That streams live beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on our website, pbs.org/washingtonweek.
And I’ll be online for my monthly chat next Thursday at noon. You can ask me anything within reason at firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep up with daily developments with me every night over at the PBS “NewsHour,” including our remarkable retrospective on the 40th anniversary of the Watergate hearings at pbs.org/NewsHour. And we’ll see you again right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.