In a potentially ominous development, President Obama carefully avoided saying Thursday whether he knew about the IRS targeting of conservative groups before the White House counsel was supposedly informed last month, raising new questions about when Obama and his advisers became aware of the targeting and whether they had anything to do with it.
Obama was asked about the IRS issue during a Rose Garden press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.
Using precise phrasing that gave the appearance of responsiveness while really saying very little, Obama said he was not aware of the Treasury inspector general’s report on the IRS targeting before the report became public. But Obama wasn’t asked about the IG report. He was asked by Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg whether he knew about that the original IRS targeting of conservatives that began in 2010 and continued until last year, not whether he was aware of a report issued this week.
Here, in full, is Obama’s response:
But let me make sure that I answer your specific question. I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the IG report before the IG report had been leaked through the press. Typically, the IG reports are not supposed to be widely distributed or shared. They tend to be a process that everybody is trying to protect the integrity of. But what I’m absolutely certain of is that the actions that were described in that IG report are unacceptable.
Ironically, as you can see, this does not at all address Goldman’s specific question, which was this:
Can you assure the American people that nobody in the White House knew about the agency’s actions before your Counsel’s Office found out on April 22nd? And when they did find out, do you think that you should have learned about it before you learned about it from news reports as you said last Friday? And also, are you opposed to there being a special council appointed to lead the Justice Department investigation?
The question is poorly phrased: Goldman in fact answers her own question for Obama by suggesting she accepts that “you learned about it from news reports.” Nevertheless, she does ask if anybody in the White House – presumably including the president himself – knew about “the agency’s actions,” and that is not a question Obama addresses.
Obama’s response is lawyerly and even Clintonian, evoking Bill Clinton’s response to a question about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, “There is not a sexual relationship.” Clinton was trying technically not to lie while leaving the impression that there never was a sexual relationship.
Similarly, Obama appears to be trying to suggest he knew nothing of the IRS targeting of Republicans by saying he didn’t know about the IG report.
The strategy may be working.
“At a press conference Thursday, Obama reiterated that he did not know about IRS targeting of conservative groups before an inspector general’s report was leaked to the news media,” wrote the Washington Post.
But that’s not what he said. He said he did not know about the IG report.
Obama’s evasiveness adds to the need for a thorough investigation led by a special prosecutor who can resist political influence. But Obama Thursday said he did not support appointing a special prosecutor, arguing that the administration and Congress can get to the bottom of the matter without one.