You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Did Republicans Know, And When Did They Know It?

The real reason conservatives should be outraged: Their party didn't politicize it sooner.

Getty/Chip Somodevilla

For Republicans attempting to make hay over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of small groups with conservative-sounding names, there is no bigger prize than President Barack Obama. The big question is, as Slate’s Dave Weigel put it, “…And When Did He Know It?” While several White House officials, including the chief of staff, were informed in April of the inspector general's investigation of the IRS, it appears that Obama learned about it by reading the newspaper, and, as The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin explains, that is actually appropriate—not only so that Obama could have plausible deniability, but so he could not be in a position to influence the investigation.

Yet, as the New York Times noted today, it is strange that the White House paid no mind in March 2012 to allegations—reported at the time by the Times itself—that the IRS was targeting Tea Party groups.  There was even a Congressional hearing later that month, to say nothing of the preceding two years’ worth of correspondence between Republican Congressman Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and top IRS officials. “For a White House typically equipped with well-honed political radar designed to sniff out and derail conservative conspiracy theories about Mr. Obama, the potentially damaging events at the IRS seemed to pass with little notice,” the Times reported today.

Of course, the White House didn’t address the IRS audit until now because no one forced them to. And therein lies the real scandal. It’s not that the IRS’s Cincinnati office took an ill-advised shortcut to catch organizations abusing 501(c)(4) tax status, or that certain White House officials knew about the audit and didn’t volunteer that information to the press. It’s that Republicans took so long to politicize it! Here was the government agency tasked with collecting America's hard-earned money—money that, surely, would be frittered away by a profligate liberal administration—being accused of targeting conservative groups, and all Republicans could manage was a lousy subcommittee hearing? And this was during an election year? Something smells fishy here.

With Republicans continuing to demand answers from the White House, it's only fair that we demand some answers from the Republicans: What did they know, and when?

Actually, we already know the answer. Republicans were shamefully oblivious to, or dragged their heels on, or were criminally negligent in politicizing, a would-have-been scandal sitting right under their noses.

The story broke around the end of February 2012. Asked about the allegations, Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican then running for Congress, responded, “The recent actions of the IRS smack of an attempt to silence those of our citizenry who are most vocal about defending our rights.” Massie is now a representative who sits on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which happens to be holding a hearing today on the IRS scandal—more than a year since Rep. Massie was asked about it. Speak up next time, congressman!

The story soon became national news. Here’s a representative write-up from March 2, 2012, in the Associated Press:

Conservatives say dozens of groups around the country have recently had similar experiences with the IRS and say its information demands are intrusive and politically motivated. They complain that the sheer size and detail of material the agency wants is designed to prevent them from achieving the tax designations they seek.

“It’s intimidation,” said Tom Zawistowski, president of the Ohio Liberty Council, a coalition of tea party groups in the state.

One of the chief haymakers was Jay Sekulow, the conservative lawyer at the American Center for Law and Justice. “The IRS has gone beyond legitimate inquiries and is demanding that these organizations answer questions that actually violate the First Amendment,” he said on March 7. “This intimidation campaign is as onerous as what the IRS did to the NAACP in the 1950s.” Sekulow, by the way, served as a legal adviser to none other than Mitt Romney. He did this last year. When Romney was, you know, the Republican nominee for president. A nominee who consistently trailed in the polls and could have benefited from, say, a scandal involving the IRS. Really, Mr. Sekulow, you were too kind.

This letter, dated March 14, asks the IRS specific questions about the allegations. It was signed by 12 Republican senators, including bigwigs like Rand Paul, Bob Corker, Orrin Hatch, John Cornyn, Pat Roberts, and, indeed, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A similar letter later in the month was sent by congressmen Darrell Issa and Jim Jordan of Oversight and Government Reform. It was even addressed to Lois Lerner, who oversaw the IRS division accused of these practices (and this morning took the Fifth). It’s possible these letters helped prompt the IRS to start its internal probe, which was launched—can you guess when?—in late March. But what about the more important external probe—the one in the press?

On March 22, Rep. Charles Boustany, chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight, held a hearing and released this statement. According to the House Ways and Means’ own timeline, that’s the last action Boustany took. 

Note to Republican officeholders: No one sends letters. Try email. Try text. Try Snapchat!

I have several theories as to why Republicans failed to make this a political issue back when it actually could have hurt Obama:

Blaming the victim. It is easy for Democrats to dismiss the people behind some of the targeted groups as crackpots and loons (albeit crackpots and loons who have the same First Amendment rights as anyone, and whose crackpottery and looniness should not subject them to unusual IRS attention). Maybe it is equally easy for establishment Republicans to dismiss the people behind some of the targeted groups as crackpots and loons. So they hear the complaints and do their due diligence, but figure that putting more behind the issue will focus attention on the groups’ nuttiness rather than the alleged IRS abuse.

False flag. Related to “blaming the victim”: Maybe establishment Republicans were secretly happy that the increased audits were getting these pesky, not-always-on-message little groups out of the picture, the better to make way for the ideologically aligned but more buttoned-up organizations supported by the Koch brothers and Karl Rove’s super PAC—groups which, being well-funded, ran into none of the 501(c)(4)-related problems the smaller groups did.

The incompetence defense. Maybe establishment Republicans are just bad at scandal-mongering? We are, after all, four months into Obama’s second term and impeachment proceedings haven’t even begun yet.

The hypocrisy defense. If Republicans made Democrats answer questions about the IRS harassing conservatives who were trying to exercise their Constitutionally guaranteed right to speech, maybe Democrats would make Republicans answer questions about harrassing minorities who were trying to exercise their Constitutionally protected right to vote.

It’s the press’s fault! Establishment Republicans heard the allegations. They sent the requisite letters and held the requisite hearing. But the liberal mainstream media didn’t report on the story, because, you know.

The Republicans who cry wolf. A poll taken around this same time period found that, even as Obama had occupied the Oval Office for more than three years, 56 percent of Republicans believed he had not been born in the United States. With so many insane conspiracy theories to contend with, a potentially valid one is bound to be thrown out with the bathwater.

My money’s on the last theory. No matter which way, though, Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for the fact that Politico was not plastering its homepage with IRS stories some 14 months ago.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow Marc on Twitter @marcatracy.