Freshly forced from his job by an increasingly defensive President Barack Obama, the man at the heart of a swirling tax-scandal denied to members of Congress yesterday that the Internal Revenue Service’s extra scrutiny of conservative political groups in the run-up to the 2012 election was politically motivated.
But Steven Miller, who was acting chief of the IRS until his ousting early last week, conceded that under his watch “intolerable” errors had been made. In the first hearing on the affair by the House Ways and Means Committee, Mr Miller denied that the special screening of groups identified by monikers like “Tea Party” or “Patriot” had been motivated by partisanship or that he had misled Congress about what had been going on.
There has been uproar in Washington since the IRS publicly acknowledged a week ago that staff in an office in Cincinnati, Ohio, had selected 298 conservative groups for special scrutiny following requests for tax-exempt status. Days later the Treasury Department’s Inspector General confirmed that “inappropriate criteria” had been used in that process, prompting Mr Obama to seek Mr Miller’s resignation.
Any notion that the IRS meant to nobble groups unfriendly to the White House would naturally rise to the level of serious political scandal. “This appears to be just the latest example of a culture of cover-ups and political intimidation in this administration,” Dave Camp, the Committee’s Republican chair, asserted. “It seems like the truth is hidden from the American people just long enough to make it through an election.”
Subjected to aggressive questioning by members, Mr Miller nonetheless repeatedly countered that what happened was a case of IRS staff trying to streamline work as they encountered a deluge of political groups, mostly from the right, seeking tax-exempt status. “I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people who were trying to be more efficient,” he said.
Asked repeatedly by Republican lawmakers to identify those who had made the mistakes, Mr Miller demurred. “I don’t have names for you,” he said, frustrating his questioners.
The claim of cover-up is also at the core of Republican-led hearings into the handling of the raid on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last September, in which the US ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed. Last week Mr Obama released a trove of emails between top officials in the days that followed it. In the meantime, questions are being asked about the seizure of phone records from the Associated Press, connected to an inquiry into leaked intelligence.
While individually each of these issues may end up only grazing Mr Obama, they are a gift to Republicans seeking to re-galvanise their grassroots troops.
“The scandals are interlocking and overlapping in ways that drain his authority,” George Will, the veteran conservative columnist averred in the Washington Post. “Everything he advocates requires Americans to lavish on government something that his administration undermines – trust.”