Articles

A White House Under Siege

May 22, 2013

Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to the president for strategy and communications, appeared on five news programs Sunday to discuss the controversies buffeting the administration. The spectacle revealed the mind-set of a White House under siege.

Mr. Pfeiffer invoked the word "irrelevant" like a wizard's incantation to dismiss questions about who edited the misleading Benghazi talking points, where the president was on the night of the assaults, and even if the law prevented the IRS from targeting groups for political reasons. On Mr. Pfeiffer's last point, ABC's George Stephanopoulos responded, "You don't really mean the law is irrelevant, do you?"

The White House adviser proclaimed that an administration should "never interfere in independent investigations," whether of the IRS or Benghazi. He liked that phrase so much he used it or a variation more than 12 times.

To foster the image of a decisive chief executive, Mr. Pfeiffer said Mr. Obama would "fix the problem" so it "would never happen again." He liked that phrase too, using it or a variant about 20 times in his 52 minutes on camera.

Mr. Pfeiffer denied any bad behavior by the Obama administration. The IRS profiling of conservative groups was an issue of "management" and "not political motivation."

Wrongdoing? "There's nothing to suggest" Sarah Hall Ingram, who ran the IRS tax-exempt division as it harassed conservatives for over two years, "did anything wrong." She was apparently ignorant of what her staff was doing. Ms. Ingram now oversees the IRS implementation of ObamaCare.

Mr. Pfeiffer even insisted that Republicans should apologize to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. This apology was owed "for accusing her of misleading the country" when she described the Benghazi attacks on television on Sept. 16 (five days after the attacks) as a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video.

Mr. Pfeiffer was quick to blame others. The CIA, he claimed, was responsible for the deceptive talking points that credited a "protest" for the Benghazi attacks. The agency removed all references to terror and al Qaeda, not the White House or State Department. Mr. Pfeiffer reserved his real venom for Republicans, whom he accused of "playing politics," with 21 references to "partisan fishing expeditions, trumped up hearings," "political hit jobs" and the like.

Mr. Pfeiffer spun his way through the Sunday talk shows, but his performance won't get the White House past these controversies. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 74% of Americans believe it was inappropriate for the IRS to single out conservatives. By 45% to 42%, Americans say Mr. Obama is trying to cover up the facts about it.

A new Fox News poll out Tuesday found that more than 60% believe the Obama administration "is trying to cover-up what happened" in Benghazi, and 66% think the White House "knew" about or "directed" the IRS targeting of conservative groups.

The situation could get worse for the White House as more questions get answered. Who concocted the fairy tale that the Benghazi attacks were caused by an anti-Muslim YouTube video? Who ordered U.S. military personnel in Tripoli not to attempt a rescue?

These questions are not going away, especially after the White House released a slew of emails. The emails reveal that, contrary to White House assertions, State Department and West Wing officials worked together to remove all references to terrorism from the talking points about Benghazi; that the talking points were altered at a White House meeting; and that unnamed staff at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. were in touch with White House staff about preparing Ms. Rice for her TV appearances.

There is more to come on the IRS scandal as well. Who authorized the agency to target conservative groups? Congressional Democrats who demanded the IRS investigate conservative organizations and the president who labeled these groups as "a threat to democracy" will have to explain the climate of intimidation they fostered.

These controversies are still in their early stages—and the GOP must never mutter the word "impeachment." The president's credibility is weakening. If Republicans concentrate on getting the facts out, then no amount of the too-cute-by-half White House spin that was on display Sunday will help him restore it.

A version of this article appeared May 23, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A White House Under Siege and online at WSJ.com.

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