Former White House officials say a president has little choice but to distance himself from investigations and then endure accusations of being out of touch, or worse.
“It’s a tough balance,” said Sara Taylor Fagen, who was White House political director for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007.
“With a scandal, there’s no way to win,” said Fagen, whom the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed and sharply questioned in a probe of dismissed U.S. attorneys. “There may never have been any wrongdoing by anyone in the White House, on any of these issues,” she said, “but once the allegations are made, you can’t win.”
A White House peeking into an ongoing investigations can trigger a political uproar. A well-known case involved President Richard Nixon trying to hinder the FBI’s probe of the Watergate break-in.
In a less far-reaching case in 2004, the Bush White House acknowledged that its counsel’s office learned of a Justice Department investigation into whether Sandy Berger — the national security adviser under President Bill Clinton — had removed classified documents from the National Archives. Democrats said the White House hoped to use the information to help Bush’s re-election campaign.
In the current IRS matter, two congressional committees are stepping up their investigations this week with hearings during which IRS and Treasury officials will be questioned closely about what they knew and when.
Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman heads to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, giving lawmakers their first opportunity to question the man who ran the agency when agents were improperly targeting tea party groups. The Senate Finance Committee wants to know why Shulman didn’t tell Congress — even after he was briefed in 2012 — that agents had been singling out conservative political groups for additional scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
Also testifying will be Steven Miller, who took over as acting commissioner in November, when Shulman’s five-year term expired. Last week, Obama forced Miller to resign.
On Wednesday, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin will testify before the House oversight committee.
Treasury inspector general J. Russell George says he told Wolin about the subject of the IRS inquiry last summer.
In a related matter, the IRS acknowledged Monday that an official testified to Congress about tax-exempt matters long after her duties supposedly had shifted to health care law. Republicans point to Sarah Hall Ingram’s history at IRS as they question the agency’s ability to properly oversee aspects of Obama’s health care overhaul.
The IRS said in a statement that Ingram “was in a unique position to testify” about tax-exempt policies in May 2012. It said Ingram “still formally held” the title of IRS commissioner of tax exempt and government entities, even though “she was assigned full-time to (health care law) activities since Dec. 2010.”