Under fire from loyalists, White House admits 'potholes' in handling IRS scandal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Facing criticism from Democratic loyalists, the White House acknowledged on Wednesday that President Barack Obama's team has struggled to get its story straight on who knew what when about the IRS targeting of conservative groups.
Democrats close to the Obama White House said they had been puzzled by the president's team's inability to establish one coherent account of the facts and stick to it in the nearly two weeks since the IRS scandal was disclosed. Some have communicated that sentiment to White House officials.
"There's been some legitimate criticisms about how we're handling this and I say legitimate because I mean it," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
The shifting story has placed Carney under pressure as reporters have pounded him daily over how much advance word Obama's staff got about the pending results of an IRS probe.
The confusion has made the normally sure-footed White House seem clumsy in the face of a scandal that is distracting from Obama's desire to focus on his second-term agenda.
When news broke on May 10 that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, Carney said Obama and top aides learned about the IRS probe based on news reports. "We don't have any independent knowledge of that," he told reporters on May 14.
Soon afterward, Carney acknowledged that the White House counsel, Kathyrn Ruemmler, had been informed on April 24 of the IRS' likely findings by officials from the Treasury Department.
Just this week, it was revealed that Ruemmler had told White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and other senior staff about the matter.
Then it was disclosed on Tuesday that Treasury Department officials had discussed the issue with White House deputy chief of staff Mark Childress, including how the IRS planned to get out the word of the pending report by its inspector general.
Some supporters close to the White House, who declined to speak on the record, said the Obama team had violated a basic tenet of crisis communications, to find out what everyone knows, distill it and present it to the public in a credible way.
"I would simply say that if I were them, I would spend time right now figuring out a comprehensive timeline and a comprehensive list of contacts and get that out immediately," said a Democratic operative familiar with internal White House operations.
"If there is an appearance that you are adding more to the story than you knew the day before, it seems to inspire less confidence."
Another Obama supporter said: "They've got to wrestle down the facts and get one coherent story together about who knew what when and stick to it and not waver. I think they know that, but I think the process of getting to a complete picture of who knew what when is more difficult than you might think."
'ENVIRONMENT THAT NEVER HAS EXISTED BEFORE'
Carney, speaking to reporters, acknowledged the White House had made a "correction" in its IRS story. But he said that given the demands of an endless news cycle, he and his team had worked to get out as much information as was available at any given time.
Citing "an environment that really never has existed before in terms of the speed and information flow," Carney said in his regular briefing on Wednesday, "We are working to get you everything we can as quickly as we can and as comprehensively as we can."
The alternative would be to say, "'Look, I can't answer any of these questions until later," and then spend "all our time trying to get everything that we know."
"You know, we take the path we've taken and accept that it's got some potholes in it and diversions that aren't always enjoyable," he said.
The IRS scandal struck as the White House also encountered criticism over its handling of events surrounding an attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, last September in which four Americans, including the ambassador, were killed, along with the Justice Department's surveillance of communications by some Associated Press reporters and editors in a leak probe.
"It's hard to stay on offense when you're on defense," said one close Obama ally.
Last week, the White House chief of staff, McDonough, brought in a host of Democratic strategists for consultation and got a similar message.
Their advice, said one of those who attended the meeting, was to try to stay focused and keep broadcasting the president's message in both words and visual images.
To some extent, Obama is doing that. On Thursday, he is to deliver a long-delayed speech about his counterterrorism policy. Early in June, he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in California and goes to Africa later in the month.
White House veterans say that to spend time juggling crises is to waste time better spent on advancing the president's priorities.
"You realize when you're in the White House that there's a real cost to every day that is lost spent dealing with these kinds of things," said Tony Fratto, who was a deputy press secretary to former Republican President George W. Bush.