The question of legality has been a prickly one for the White House and the IRS over the last week. The acting IRS Commissioner said his agency's targeting regime was "absolutely not" illegal, before retreating to an "I'm not sure" crouch. White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer memorably and inartfully stated that "the law is irrelevant" because the practice was wrong either way. As the debate proceeds among legal experts, one of the IRS officials at the center of the scandal is preparing to invoke her fifth amendment constitutional rights at today's House Oversight Committee hearing -- which will undoubtedly fuel the disagreement over whether the IRS broke the law in abusing its power to harass and hamstring the president's political adversaries:
A top IRS official in the division that reviews nonprofit groups will invoke the 5th Amendment and refuse to answer questions before a House committee investigating the agency’s improper screening of conservative nonprofit groups. Lois Lerner, the head of the exempt organizations division of the IRS, won’t answer questions about what she knew about the improper screening — or why she didn’t disclose it to Congress, according to a letter from her defense lawyer, William W. Taylor III. Lerner was scheduled to appear before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. “She has not committed any crime or made any misrepresentation but under the circumstances she has no choice but to take this course,” said a letter by Taylor to committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Vista).
Ah. Lerner's committed no crime, her lawyer insists, but she's going to decline to answer Congress' questions in order to avoid, er, incriminating herself. Just to cement her own tone-deafness, Lerner had her lawyer attempt to exempt her from today's proceedings for reasons that will garner precious little sympathy from the American people:
Since Lerner won’t answer questions, Taylor asked that she be excused from appearing, saying that would “have no purpose other than to embarrass or burden her.” There was no immediate word whether the committee will grant her request.
Heaven forbid a deceitful and capricious Internal Revenue Service employee be subjected to an embarrassing and burdensome process. America's reply, in unison: Cry us a river, Lois. Issa apparently agrees; Lerner will have to show up and refuse to answer questions in person. CNBC's John Harwood explains why the resulting spectacle promises to cause an acute political headache for the White House:
Lerner taking 5th is worst hearing outcome for WH: hint of potential criminality to screw-ups IG didn't find partisan, much less criminal— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) May 21, 2013
Not to mention the optics of a top IRS official repeatedly declining to testify as to her own actions, which solidifies the prevailing public perception that something illegal went down. Those clips will make the rounds on the air and online. Meanwhile, the drip, drip, drip never seems to stop. After a "testy exchange" with the IRS, National Review managed to confirm that the unit responsible for overseeing the targeting practices was based in Washington from the beginning. This "reality check" from a local affiliate in Cincinnati is helpful, too. Combine that detail with a growing number of media outlets expressing skepticism over the administration's veracity, and it appears as though the administration has lost total control of the narrative. Here's liberal Howard Fineman writing at the Huffington Post:
From the start, the White House's response on this potentially explosive matter has been grudging at best and, in retrospect, ignorant or arrogant or both ... We still don't know the details of how the special scrutiny of conservative groups began in 2010, who approved it, or who first learned about it higher up at the IRS and the Treasury Department. The White House says that it knew nothing about the matter until the counsel received a heads up about the pending IG report. And yet tea party and other conservative groups had been complaining about the IRS scrutiny since 2010, and IRS officials had publicly reassured members of Congress that there was nothing unusual or unwarranted going on. With two winning presidential campaigns built on successful grassroots fundraising, with a former White House counsel (in 2010-11) who is one of the Democrats' leading experts on campaign law (Bob Bauer), with former top campaign officials having been ensconced as staffers in the White House (David Axelrod, who left for the reelection campaign in early 2011, and Dan Pfeiffer among others), it's hard to imagine that the Obama inner circle was oblivious to the issue of what the IRS was doing in Cincinnati.
Uh oh. His analysis is intuitive, of course, but it represents a major defection from Camp Obama. No wonder the Obama brain trust resorted to, "spin team, ass-em-ble!" last night:
I'll leave you with the following exchange from yesterday's press briefing. If Carney's already burned his "birther" card (in idiotic and insulting fashion, in regards to an entirely legitimate controversy), what's next?
UPDATE - To further whet your appetite for this morning's parade of pleading the fifth, here's FactCheck.org's roster of IRS lies and misstatements so far, several of which have been perpetrated by Ms. Lerner. As Carol reminded us last night, though, Lerner doesn't have carte blanche to evade questions. She can only invoke her right against self-incrimination if her answer could "put her in legal jeopardy."