In a news conference declaration reminiscent of Captain Renault's memorable words in "Casablanca" -- "I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" -- President Obama expressed dismay at the IRS' targeting of conservative Tea Party groups. The chief executive described himself as "offended" by such practices, vowed not to "tolerate" them, and said those responsible must be held accountable because "the IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity and people have to have confidence that they apply laws in a nonpartisan way."
Keeping the IRS as far away from partisan politics is indeed the crucial consideration, but there are multiple grounds for thinking this president has already thrown away his credibility on the importance of preserving the integrity of the agency. First, this targeting was not merely a misguided effort by low-level bureaucrats in an isolated federal facility. The tax agency's Cincinnati office handles tax-exemption applications from educational nonprofit groups across the country.
Second, the draft report by the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration makes a nullity of the idea that the only targeted groups were those with either "tea party" or "patriot" in their names. In fact, groups got extra IRS attention if they had "take back the country" in their names or were formed to monitor "government spending, government debt or taxes." The IRS even singled out groups devoted to trying "to make America a better place to live" and "criticiz[ing] how the country is being run." Put these criteria together and the result is a net wide enough to capture most groups on the right side of the ideological spectrum.
Even more important is the context in which the targeting took place. Tea Party groups began reporting disturbing requests from the IRS in 2010 during a campaign season that ultimately saw Obama and his Democratic supporters in Congress lose control of the House. The new Republican-controlled House then launched politically damaging investigations into administration actions, including most prominently the Fast and Furious scandal on U.S. government gun-running to Mexico and the political influences behind the Solyndra green energy bankruptcy. Much of the Republican drive and energy was supplied by Tea Party groups, which made them prime targets for the IRS.
Recall, too, the multiple instances during this period in which there appeared to be abuse of IRS access in ways that were politically beneficial to Obama, including, for example, the release of confidential tax information about Koch Industries by a senior White House economics adviser, Austan Goolsbee. A Senate committee investigated the flap but Democrats on the panel have kept the report under lock and key ever since.
Recall as well, as Justin Binik-Thomas explains on page 23 of today's edition, that, while the IRS was targeting Tea Party groups, it was also targeting individuals like him and others. Among them were Foster Friess, a frequent donor to anti-Obama groups, and Frank VanderSloot, a Mitt Romney 2012 campaign donor. Like Charles and David Koch, VanderSloot has also contributed millions to anti-Big Government candidates. Unlike the shenanigans in Rick's cafe, there can be no winking at these sorts of abuses of the IRS by Obama or any other president.