Damage Control!

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In the last 24 hours, President Obama has gone full throttle on damage control on the three scandals that have emerged over the last week.

To address concerns over Benghazi—which resurfaced last week, following a new (mistaken) report on the administration’s approach—the White House released 100 pages of emails made between the government agencies responsible for drawing up talking points for the attacks. Far from showing a cover-up, or an attempt to protect the president’s re-election bid, they confirm the administration’s long-standing position—that White House officials weren’t involved in framing talking points.

This won’t kill Republican conspiracy mongering, but it should lead journalists to dismiss Benghazi as a “scandal” worthy of heightened scrutiny. Likewise, in a press conference yesterday afternoon, Obama moved to deal with the controversy at the Internal Revenue Service by dismissing the acting commissioner, Steven Miller. Now, this won’t solve anything—Miller wasn’t at the IRS when it began targeting conservative groups—but it does show that Obama is aware of the political dangers around the IRS scandal. Unlike Benghazi—or the Associated Press/Justice Department controversy (more on that a bit later)—this is easy for the public to understand.

By expressing outrage—“Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it”—firing the acting commissioner, and promising to work with Congress to fix problems at the IRS, Obama makes criticism bipartisan, and insulates himself from potential outrage. With that said, it’s worth noting how much this is an issue of (political) incompetence and short-sightedness, not actual wrongdoing. There’s no evidence the IRS was targeting groups because of their ideological beliefs. Instead, conservative groups came in for greater scrutiny because most new applications for tax-exempt status were coming from conservative groups. The IRS’ only mistake was to not use a “filter” that included liberal organizations as well as Tea Party ones.

Of the three scandals of the last week, the only one that reveals genuine problems is the Justice Department’s subpoena of phone records of reporters and editors at the Associated Press. As my colleague Scott Lemieux notes, it’s not that this is illegal—so far, there’s no evidence DOJ broke the law—but that it reveals the extent to which the law is weighted to far in favor of the federal government. To borrow his line, “The executive branch has the constitutional authority to engage in many things that aren’t wise or prudent, and we should expect the Obama administration to do more than the minimum required by the Supreme Court when considering the free speech rights of journalists.” The Justice Department’s justification was too weak, and the seizure too broad—it gathered phone records from nearly two dozen lines. The absence of wrongdoing, in other words, shouldn’t obscure the fact that there is a real policy problem here.

Republicans outrage on this is clearly opportunistic—at no point has the GOP shown any real interest in curbing the executive branch’s surveillance powers—but it’s enough to push the administration to action. Yesterday, in fact, President Obama endorsed a “shield law” that would give legal cover to reporters seeking to protect their sources.

This probably isn’t enough, but it’s a good start. And indeed, if Republicans decide to support a shield law—and, essentially, call the administration’s bluff—it will transform this week of Scandal Fever! into something worthwhile and useful. It’s not that my hopes are up, but it would be nice—for once—to see something positive come out of Washington’s cynicism.

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