Have the White House scandals already passed their peak?

Jon Terbush
The Week
President Obama delivers a statement on the IRS scandal on Wednesday.

Scandal-mania may have jumped the shark — or been largely overblown to begin with

The ominous three-headed scandal facing the Obama administration — Benghazi, the Associated Press, and the IRS — has dominated headlines this week, with each successive revelation creating a "dangerous new narrative" and ostensibly sending the White House farther and farther off course.

Yet by Wednesday evening, there were signs that scandal fever had already begun to break. Contextualizing reports emerged that blunted the scandals' sharpest points, while White House officials and President Obama himself took swift, vigorous action to head off the political fallout.

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"The scandal cloud formed, as I argued today, because three events came together in just the right sequence so as to create the impression that we had 'three Obama scandals' when, in reality, we have somewhere between zero and one," says New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait.

As Chait argues, the first scandal — that the White House had scrubbed talking points on the Benghazi consulate attack to protect the State Department — was only a scandal in the minds of Republicans who've pushed that narrative since last September. It gained new life on Friday when ABC's Jon Karl reported that a source described to him White House emails that supported that storyline.

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However, on Tuesday, CNN debunked that report after actually obtaining one of those emails and noting that it contradicted Karl's anonymous source. Rather than painting a picture of a White House hell-bent on protecting itself, the email showed the administration simply doing its job to ensure that all agencies were on the same page, and that the talking points were clear and accurate.

As a result, says the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, that supposedly bombshell report is now "decidedly less explosive." Lizza also noted that the administration could end the debate by simply releasing more internal emails.

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On Wednesday, the administration did just that, releasing 100 pages of emails. According to CNN, those correspondences show that the CIA, not the White House, led the way in drafting and editing the government's post-attack talking points.

As far as we know, that was the only supposed scandal that actually involved the White House. The second controversy — in which low-level IRS employees targeted conservative groups for scrutiny — occurred in-house. The third scandal — in which the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed the AP's phone records — was carried out without the White House's knowledge, according to Attorney General Eric Holder.

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On the IRS, the agency acted without any input from the administration. An Inspector General's report released Tuesday found that while "inappropriate criteria" were used to flag conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status, higher-ups in the IRS immediately put a stop to the practice when they found out about it.

Obama, for his part, condemned the practice as "inexcusable" and vowed to "hold the responsible parties accountable." On Wednesday night, he held a press conference to announce that Steven Miller, acting head of the IRS, had been fired.

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Holder has also ordered the FBI to investigate the incident to determine if any laws were broken. And on Tuesday, the IRS reportedly identified two "rogue" agents who alone were responsible for the targeting, a revelation that pushed the story yet further from the president.

Some, like the Washington Post's Ezra Klein and now the New Republic's Noam Scheiber, have even argued that the scandalous piece of the IRS story is really that the agency should have done more to thwart overtly political groups from seeking tax-exempt status.

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"The only real sin the IRS committed in its ostensible targeting of conservatives is the sin of political incorrectness — that is, of not pretending it needed to vet all the new groups that wanted tax-exempt status, even though it mostly just needed to vet right-wing groups," Scheiber says.

That leaves the AP subpoenas, which is the only "legitimate piece that is currently propping up the other two rapidly deflating elements of the scandal troika," says Chait.

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Still, he argues, it's not exactly a scandal, but rather "a policy dispute, like when the Environmental Protection Agency decides to regulate or not regulate carbon dioxide, and policy disputes can be important." Civil rights groups, of course, would beg to differ, saying the scandal is the latest evidence that the Obama administration has taken its surveillance powers too far.

On Wednesday, Holder testified before a House subcommittee and pushed the blame away from himself and the White House. Holder had recused himself from the subpoena, and so, he said, had no knowledge of it. To underscore his supposed non-involvement, he repeatedly said, "I don't know," or some iteration of that statement in response to lawmakers' questions.

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"I am not familiar with the reasons why the subpoena was constructed in the way that it was because I'm simply not a part of the case," he said.

What he did say, however, was that Deputy Attorney General James Cole authorized that subpoena. Yet Cole, he said, wouldn't be able to offer any insight into the subpoena either because the case is ongoing, meaning further questions are likely to go unanswered for some time.

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Amid all the blowback, the Obama administration has asked Congress to revive a proposed federal shield law that would protect journalists from revealing their sources. The move is seen as a transparent attempt to appease civil libertarians.

To recap: There are signs that two of the three scandals are fizzling, and that the White House has markedly distanced itself from the third.

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"There is a great deal still to learn about all three cases," says Lizza. "But, contrary to much of the reporting and punditry, my sense is that Tuesday saw the peak of scandal-mania for a while."

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