WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama tried to swat down a pair of brewing controversies Monday, denouncing as “outrageous” the targeting of conservative political groups by the federal IRS but angrily denying any administration cover-up after last year’s deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
Simultaneous investigations – and demands by Republicans for more – have put the White House on the defensive, emboldened GOP lawmakers and threatened to overtake a second-term Obama agenda already off to a rocky start.
During a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the normally even-keeled Obama appeared agitated over the resurgent investigation into the September attack at a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. He dismissed the Republican-driven effort as a “sideshow” that dishonors the four Americans who were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“There’s no there there,” Obama declared in his first public comments since GOP lawmakers launched new hearings on the matter. “The fact that this keeps on getting churned up, frankly, has a whole lot to do with political motivations.”
Seeking to keep another controversy from spinning out of control, the president rebuked the IRS for scrutinizing the tax-exempt status of groups with conservative titles such as “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names. Those responsible, Obama said, must be held “fully accountable.”
“I’ve got no patience with it,” he added. “I will not tolerate it, and we will find out exactly what happened.”
The president said he first learned of the matter Friday when it was reported by news organizations. Spokesman Jay Carney said later that the White House counsel’s office was alerted April 22 that the IRS inspector general was completing a review of an IRS office in Cincinnati.
Neither issue appears to be going away any time soon. On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked authors of an independent government review into the Benghazi attack to meet privately with committee investigators. And the House Ways and Means Committee said it plans to hold a hearing on the IRS matter on Friday.
The two controversies are the latest in a series of unexpected challenges that have consumed the White House since Obama began his second term in January. Among the others: the Boston Marathon bombings, Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons and fresh nuclear provocations from North Korea.
It’s hardly the start Obama’s team envisioned after he solidly won re-election in November. The White House had hoped to achieve an early victory on immigration overhaul, make another run at a sweeping deficit reduction deal, and perhaps take a stab at tackling climate change.
But those plans were upended even before Obama’s inauguration, when the horrific December massacre of 20 school children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., thrust gun control to the forefront of Obama’s domestic agenda. That legislative effort failed on Capitol Hill last month, leaving Obama with a political defeat and giving critics of immigration reform more time to organize their opposition.
Obama still has an opportunity to reverse course and claim a big second-term victory if immigration changes can be approved. Draft legislation being debated in the Senate has bipartisan support, and Republicans have a political incentive to back an overhaul given the growing political power of Hispanic voters, who voted overwhelmingly Democratic in 2012.
For the White House, the challenge will be to keep Capitol Hill focused on immigration and other legislative priorities, not a persistent cycle of investigations.
“The American people want Washington to focus on the issues that matter most to them,” Carney said Monday. “The imperative for getting things done still exists.”
However, Republicans made clear that they plan to keep pressing the president on both Benghazi and the IRS.
“The administration continues to lose credibility by failing to answer even the simplest questions, refusing to take full responsibility and failing to produce a plan to move forward,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told The Associated Press. “As we learned from Watergate, concealing information from the public is a dangerous practice.”
The IRS has apologized for what it said was “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups. The agency blamed low-level employees, saying no high-level officials were aware.
But a draft of an inspector general’s report obtained by the AP says senior IRS officials knew agents were targeting tea party groups as early as 2011. The Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is expected to release the final report this week after a yearlong investigation.
The Benghazi investigation has trailed Obama for months, with many Republicans focused on how the White House first explained the attacks to the American people. Administration officials initially said the attacks appeared to grow out of a spontaneous demonstration, though it later concluded that they were planned acts of terror.
The White House has insisted there was no effort to change the initial administration “talking points” to downplay the prospect of terrorism.
But emails made public last week concerning the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used five days after the Sept. 11 assault showed State Department and other senior administration officials asking that references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted.
The White House has insisted that it made only a “stylistic” change to the intelligence agency talking points which Rice used to suggest on five Sunday talk shows that demonstrations over an anti-Islamic video devolved into the Benghazi attack.
On Monday, Obama said the focus should be on making sure that diplomats serving around the world are adequately protected, which he acknowledged was not the case in Benghazi.
“If anybody out there wants to actually focus on how we make sure something like this doesn’t happen again, I’m happy to get their advice and counsel,” he said.
The two controversies largely overshadowed Obama’s meeting with Cameron, which centered in large part on next steps for addressing Syria’s fierce civil war. The British prime minister, whose government has been more aggressive on Syria than Obama’s has, declared there was “no more urgent international task” that quelling the violence in Syria.
However, both leaders offered no indication of an imminent decision to directly send weapons to Syrian rebels or take other military action. Instead, they put their hopes in a glimmer of cooperation from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has helped keep Syrian leader Bashar Assad in power.