It appears this is the political story generating the most attention this afternoon, though I think there's less here than meets the eye.
The White House first learned of a draft report detailing abuses by IRS officials in targeting conservative groups in late April, though the top administration spokesman maintained on Monday that President Barack Obama was not notified of the emerging controversy at that time.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, in a bid to further the administration's public response to revelations that the IRS had singled out conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny, disclosed at his daily press briefing that White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler was informed of the report on April 24. She, in turn, told senior White House staff -- including chief of staff Denis McDonough -- of the then-incomplete report, though Carney said those details were never conveyed to Obama.
So, about a year ago, in response to complaints, the IRS decided to investigate the process through which groups applied for tax-exempt status. In July 2012, the agency's Inspector General got to work, initiating an investigation. The IG's office did its due diligence, without interference from the White House or anyone else, and wrapped up its audit last month.
At that point, a variety of top officials, including senior folks at the White House, were made aware of the broad outlines of the IG's findings, which apparently is pretty routine -- IG offices in other agencies alert the White House to the release of upcoming reports, too.
I'm not altogether sure why this is important, or even interesting. When it comes to potential areas of political controversy, there are a series of obvious questions: did the White House interfere with the IG investigation? Did the White House publicly comment on the IG investigation in order to influence its outcome? Was there any reason to notify the White House of the probe earlier?
As best as I can tell, the answer to all of these questions, at least given the available information, is "no." So, I'm left to wonder once more why this is a major development.
If the White House's detractors hoped to argue that President Obama's team learned about the trouble at the IRS last year and did nothing, that could conceivably be a real controversy, but it's not what happened -- the White House learned about the IG investigation in late April 2013, not April 2012. Besides, it's not as if nothing happened in response to the IRS criticisms -- the Inspector General launched an audit, as Congress requested.
Similarly, if Obama's critics believed the White House learned of the controversy last year, but kept it under wraps before the election, this too might be the basis for a genuine controversy, but that's not what happened either -- Congress was notified of the investigation back in July 2012. That notification included House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who hates the president with the heat of a thousand suns, but who nevertheless said nothing during the 2012 campaign about the ongoing probe.
For all the intense complaining from Republicans on the Sunday shows about the "culture of intimidation," this appears to be evidence of the exact opposite. The White House didn't try to bully the IG's office; it didn't even know the IG's office was doing an investigation until the report was ready to be released.
And when the IG's report was finally released to the public, it confirmed what the White House has said all along -- that no one outside the IRS was involved with the scrutinizing of prospective non-profits.
So what's the problem? Who cares that White House officials were notified about the report a few weeks ago?
Update: There's apparently an argument that Carney may have been caught in a fib, which is what makes this important. He told reporters one thing today, critics allege, and something different last week. But Carney said from his podium last week that White House officials "were not aware of any activity or of any review conducted by the Inspector General until several weeks ago." We can have a conversation about the meaning of "several," but learning about a report in late April and learning about a report "several weeks ago," sounds about the same to me. So I'm again left to wonder, why in the world does anyone consider this important?