How close was Obama to the IRS scandal?

A new report says Obama's top lawyer knew of the IRS scandal weeks before the president said he had learned about it in the news

Barack Obama
(Image credit: Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)

Soon after the story broke that the IRS had been targeting conservative groups, President Obama said that he hadn't previously known about the scandal, and had found out about it "in the news." That would mean that before May 10, the day IRS official Lois Lerner apologized for the agency's actions at a legal conference, Obama had no idea that the agency had done anything inappropriate.

On Sunday, a senior White House official told The Wall Street Journal that Kathryn Ruemmler, head of the Office of the White House Counsel, knew as early as April 22 that an inspector general audit of the IRS would likely show that the agency was targeting conservative groups applying for 501(c)(4) status, by singling out applicants with words like "Tea Party" and "patriot" in their names.

That timeline prompts an important question: If Obama's top lawyer knew about the IRS situation weeks before it went public, shouldn't she have told the president?

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No, says John Podesta, former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. "The worst thing is if [the White House does] anything that is perceived to be interfering with an independent investigation," Podesta said. "That gets you in such trouble your head spins."

Lanny Davis, a Washington D.C. attorney who served under President Clinton and George W. Bush, disagrees. "I respectfully suggest Ms. Ruemmler is in the wrong job and that she should resign," Davis wrote in The Hill, adding:

The White House counsel to the president, one of the two or three most important positions on the White House staff, must be more than a great lawyer, which Ms. Ruemmler reportedly is. The White House counsel must also have a sensitive political and media ear — in other words, must be a first-rate crisis manager who understands the fundamental need to get the president out in front of the facts, and not be reactive or overly legalistic in determining crisis management strategy. [The Hill]

The argument over whether Ruemmler should or should not have told Obama about the IG report is irrelevant, some conservative pundits are saying, because they don't believe she kept the president in the dark.

"Either Ruemmler was incredibly incompetent or the White House is lying about when Obama knew of the scandal," writes Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. "We got a big hint in last week's press conference that it's the latter, when Obama changed the context of a question about his awareness of the scandal to his awareness of the IG report, which is pointedly not the same thing."

Republican lawmakers are expected to hold several hearings investigating the matter, beginning Wednesday with a House Oversight Committee hearing led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)

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Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.