WASHINGTON – The Obama administration’s timeline for who knew what and when about the Internal Revenue Service scandal changed again Tuesday with revelations that the Treasury Department and White House officials had discussed how to stage-manage the release of the explosive information.
The latest revelation came as acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller told Congress on Tuesday that he’s responsible for the secretly planted question answered by subordinate Lois Lerner that triggered the scandal that’s now gripping the nation’s capital.
Miller said last week that he was aware of the idea to plant a question at an American Bar Association conference and have Lerner apologize for the inappropriate targeting of conservative groups who’d sought tax-exempt designations from the IRS. But on Tuesday Miller took ownership of the idea.
“I will take responsibility for that,” Miller said, suggesting a botched effort at damage control. “We had all the facts. We thought we’d get out an apology.
“Obviously, the entire thing was an incredibly bad idea,” he said of the planted question. “I think what we tried to do is get the apology out and start the story. The report was coming, and we knew that.”
Roughly at the same time Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told the Senate Banking Committee that his agency was aware of IRS efforts to get ahead of the coming report from the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration, J. Russell George. The report detailed the targeting of conservative groups, which it said had ended in 2012.
“There were some conversations at a staff level between Treasury and IRS. You know, there are — it is — was — the discretion of the IRS to decide how to manage this matter,” Lew said in answer to questions from Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Treasury did not reveal this last week. A Treasury official who demanded anonymity to speak freely explained Tuesday that agency officials had learned in April that Lerner might make a speech acknowledging the targeting and “expressed some concern about the idea of a speech, but ultimately deferred to the IRS on that issue.”
The speech never happened, and Treasury learned later that Miller might make an apology in congressional testimony, the official said.
White House officials were aware of the first two possibilities but not the planted question, the Treasury official said, adding that Lew was unaware of the plant.
This new information came after White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior aides to the president had been aware of the pending report and its controversial findings much earlier than first indicated.
But questions Tuesday about who else knew what Lew knew resulted in Carney again updating the narrative with more information than he’d provided a day earlier. He acknowledged that “there were discussions (with Treasury) about the timing of the release of this information and the findings of the report.”
Involved in those discussions, he said, were Treasury’s offices of chief of staff and general counsel and the White House offices of chief of staff and general counsel.
“The conversations were just about finding out when that information was going to be released and what it was going to say, because I think, as I made clear yesterday, until we had the report, we did not know the final conclusions of the inspector general,” Carney said.
Facing pointed questioning from reporters about the evolving story, Carney defended his performance. “I answered the questions that were asked of me,” he said.
The White House maintains that Obama didn’t learn about the scandal until May 10, the same day the American people did. Carney again Tuesday defended the “appropriate action” of keeping the president in the dark on such an important matter, even as White House, IRS and Treasury staff-level officials discussed how the results might be made public.
Congress won’t be hearing Lerner’s version of events. Through a lawyer, she notified the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that she’ll invoke her Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to answer questions Wednesday when she appears before the committee.