President Barack Obama declared Monday that Americans have the right to expect "absolute integrity" from the IRS and that it would be "outrageous" if the agency improperly targeted conservative political groups.
"This is pretty straightforward. If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous, and there is no place for it," Obama said during a joint question-and-answer session with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House. "You don't want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate."
The president said he learned that the Internal Revenue Service may have improperly scrutinized the tax-exempt status of tea party-related groups when the news broke on Friday.
Obama's strong words followed an outcry from many Republicans over the IRS's apparent display of political bias. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a GOP moderate, said Sunday that the IRS’s actions needed to be “personally condemned” by the president, who must “make crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable.”
Collins also called into question the IRS’s early claim that the improper behavior was the work of low-level staffers.
"I just don't buy that this was a couple of rogue IRS employees," she said, underlining that "groups with 'progressive' in their names were not targeted similarly."
Obama emphasized that the Treasury Department's inspector general was investigating and that he did not want to comment "prematurely" on what they might uncover.
"But I can tell you that if you've got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, then that is outrageous, it is contrary to our traditions, and people have to be held accountable and it's got to be fixed. So we'll wait and see what exactly all the details and the facts are," Obama said. "But I've got no patience with it. I will not tolerate it. And we'll make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this."
Presidential press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the White House counsel's office learned of the internal IRS investigation into the issue "in the week of April 22nd of this year."
Carney said it was too early to talk about potential action against any IRS employees if evidence of wrongdoing comes to light. "The 'if' is important here," he said. "We, like everyone else, are awaiting its results."
In the press conference, Obama also pushed back hard against Republican-driven charges that his administration tried to cover up the role terrorists played in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, which claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
"There's no there, there," he said.