The White House is beginning to prioritize. Faced with answering suddenly non-stop questions about three different controversies of varying legitimacy — the Benghazi talking points, the Associated Press subpoena, and IRS audits — President Obama and his spokesman have now more or less officially shifted their public energy to dealing with the IRS targeting of "tea party" and "patriot" keywords, and more or less ignoring the other two. After all, people are getting in actual trouble with the IRS affair.
After Friday's long delayed eruption in the briefing room, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has taken to his daily press conferences this week to dismiss criticism of the Benghazi talking points as a marginal "obsession" and a "sideshow" staged by conservatives to drum up outrage — Obama coined the "sideshow" line on Monday. Despite a White House push today for a federal shield law, Carney also declared zero White House involvement in the A.P. subpoena, handing off responsibility to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who on Wednesday continued to distance himself from the Justice Department's AP investigation at a regularly scheduled hearing on Capitol Hill.
The I.R.S. audits are a different matter, though. While the scope of the audits remains unclear — as The New Republic points out, it affected fairly small groups — the nature of controversy (in particular its historical precedent) is potent enough to attract a White House response. Today Obama is convening with Treasury Department officials and Sen. John McCain to discuss Treasury's ongoing investigation into the audits, less than 24 hours after his quick response to the Treasury watchdog report. The President's reaction, in part:
I have now had the opportunity to review the Treasury Department watchdog’s report on its investigation of IRS personnel who improperly targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. And the report’s findings are intolerable and inexcusable. The federal government must conduct itself in a way that’s worthy of the public’s trust, and that’s especially true for the IRS. The IRS must apply the law in a fair and impartial way, and its employees must act with utmost integrity. This report shows that some of its employees failed that test.
In the IRS the White House finds a rare opportunity to condemn government wrongdoing and distance itself from the perpetrators. Whereas the White House has aggressively pursued leakers (the ostensible point of the A.P. subpoena) and helped shape the Benghazi talking points (over which Obama's preferred Secretary of State nominee, Susan Rice, withdrew herself from consideration), its doesn't really have any pre-existing involvement with the federal government's tax agency. (Which, of course, is by design!)
So don't expect the IRS investigation to end any time soon. By the same token, don't expect the White House to find itself in much of a bind, either. Obama is actually talking in public, willfully, about this scandal because he and his team seem to believe it's an actual scandal; indeed, two "rogue" employees have reportedly been disciplined already. Rep. Darrell Issa, of course, is investigating.
Update, 4:00 p.m.: CNN reports that IRS commissioner Steven Miller described the two "rogue" IRS employees as "off the reservation":
The Internal Revenue Service has identified two "rogue" employees in the agency's Cincinnati office as being principally responsible for "overly aggressive" handling of requests by conservative groups for tax-exempt status, a congressional source told CNN.
In a meeting on Capitol Hill, acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller described the employees as being "off the reservation," according to the source. It was not clear precisely what the alleged behavior involved.
Update, 4:30 p.m.: Multiple outlets are reporting that IRS officials have "disciplined" two Cincinnati-based employees connected to the improper auditing of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status:
JUST IN: A congressional source tells @cbsnews 2 people in Cincinnati IRS office disciplined in targeting of conservative groups— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 15, 2013
2 IRS employees disciplined in relation to screening of conservative groups, senior IRS official tells congressional investigators - NBC— CNBC (@CNBC) May 15, 2013
Update, 5:25 p.m.: And then, of course, the White House released 100 pages of Benghazi emails — and announced that President Obama would speak on the IRS invesigation at the White House at 6 p.m.