The chief White House lawyer, Kathryn Ruemmler, may find herself unwillingly starring in a Washington drama involving the Department of Justice, the White House and perhaps the most resented of all federal agencies, the Internal Revenue Service.
Recent revelations that the IRS improperly focused on conservative groups in weighing their eligibility for tax-exempt status have given foes of President Barack Obama extra arrows for their quivers, fairly or otherwise. Attorney General Eric Holder’s pledge to Congress last week that a DOJ probe of the affair would follow the facts wherever they lead are unlikely to appease administration critics for long.
And now come revelations that Ruemmler knew weeks before the matter became public that a Treasury Department inspector general had completed an examination of the IRS’s targeting of the right-leaning groups, yet she sat on that knowledge, not informing the president. If that is indeed true, Ruemmler isn’t qualified to be the president’s counsel, no matter how competent a lawyer she is, and should step down, in the opinion of Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Bill Clinton.
“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,” Davis wrote on The Daily Caller, which loves to make cruel sport of the Obama White House and the Justice Department.
“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,” Davis said.
It may take a while to determine how much blame Ruemmler deserves to carry, since White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that Ruemmler told White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior aides of the investigation of the IRS in late April — but that the word was not passed on to the president, as the Washington Post reported.
For the moment, Ruemmler is bearing the brunt of criticism. “If Ms. Ruemmler did know about this I.R.S. story and didn’t inform the president immediately, then, respectfully, that must mean she didn’t appreciate fully the mammoth legal and political implications for the U.S. government as well as the American people of a story involving IRS officials abusing power and possibly violating criminal laws,” Davis opined.
It became clear on Monday that the White House will not necessarily have an easier time in the Democratic-controlled Senate than it will in the Republican-held House. As The New York Times reported, Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and Orrin Hatch of Utah, the chairman and ranking Republican, respectively, of the Senate Finance Committee sent a letter to acting (and soon to depart) IRS Commissioner Steven Miller asking dozens of pointed questions, and demanding answers by the end of the month.
“Was the decision to target any tax-exempt applications for review and subject them to full development or heightened scrutiny influenced or prompted in any way by political pressure directed at the IRS from any members of the Congress or other elected officials?” the letter asked.
Those of a certain age can recall allegations that top aides to President Richard M. Nixon cynically discussed ways to use the IRS to hassle their political enemies. But those revelations were aired when Ruemmler was a mere toddler (she was born in 1971), and the Watergate era is fading into memory.
As The New York Times noted, senior Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer was busy on television Sunday, trying to get out in front of a story that the White House has been badly behind, at least from a public relations standpoint. Administration allies have noted that, while the IRS targeting of conservative groups seems to have created a political tornado, the storm was percolating quietly for months. Last July, for instance, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, was told by the Treasury inspector general’s office that the IRS screening of political groups was being examined.
Last week, as we reported, Holder pledged on Capitol Hill that his department would learn whether laws were broken, or whether some IRS aides in a backwater office in Cincinnati were guilty of nothing more than low-horizon thinking, as some have suggested in offering a lukewarm defense of the tax-collecting bureaucracy.
Pfeiffer, too, seemed to give Republicans more ammunition, as when he said he didn’t know whether laws had been broken at the IRS, but that the agency’s actions were seriously wrong. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), a leader of House conservatives, termed Pfeiffer’s remarks “shocking, but quite telling.”
As for Ruemmler, Lanny Davis said he didn’t doubt that she’s a good lawyer. Still, he said, “I suggest she should immediately resign and be replaced by a White House counsel who is expert at the trio of disciplines required for that job — law, media, and politics.”