Trio of Scandals Puts Obama, Holder in Hot Seat

A trio of scandals has put President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on the hot seat.


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will testify Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

Even when the White House says it disapproves or didn't know of the latest government action spiraling into a political scandal, it's hard to keep the president out of it.

A trifecta of breaking stories has put President Barack Obama on the hot seat. He and his team, from inside the White House to Cabinet members, must juggle questions about the handling of a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that left a U.S. ambassador dead, a phone records subpoena by the Justice Department that surprised the national news organization it targeted, and a practice at the Internal Revenue Service that scrutinized certain political non-profit groups' tax-exempt status applications.

Politico's Glenn Thrush reports on frustrations with how the West Wing seemed to be lacking spin control. "Our hands are completely tied" on the IRS and Department of Justice stories, one administration official said, because of legal limitations with the agencies. The communications team has been "very, very slow on the draw" a former official said.

While a news conference with Attorney General Eric Holder and a formal report on the IRS practices provided some answers Tuesday, the continued focus on these stories is reshaping Mr. Obama's political narrative. And it's not in the way he would prefer.

Thrush's colleagues Alexander Burns and John F. Harris sum up the arc of the story around Mr. Obama this way: "None of these messes would have happened under a president less obsessed with politics, less insulated within his own White House and less trusting of government as an institution."

In other words, a perception of a culture of intolerance inside the White House can be a major distraction when a president wants to focus on his policy long game and legacy. It's unclear what kind of impact the week's events will have on the rest of his term -- or the press' coverage of it.

The Associated Press, which was the target of the Justice Department subpoena, went to the heart of this idea with its first question to White House spokesman Jay Carney at Tuesday's press briefing:

"Doesn't responsibility for setting tone and setting direction ultimately rest with the president on these matters?" the reporter asked.

Carney insisted that the reporters treat the issues separately, and look to Mr. Obama's day-to-day work.

Both the IRS and Associated Press scandals continued to grow Tuesday.

First, the Justice Department and FBI opened an investigation into the IRS' special review of groups, including those linked to the tea party and conservative politics, as they sought tax-exempt status.

Holder condemned the IRS' discrimination in a news conference and assured the government he would hold any wrongdoers accountable:

"To the extent that we have determined that actors in government have gone beyond what they were supposed to do, broken regulations, broken rules, broken the law, we have prosecuted people. We have held people accountable. We have tried to do things according to the rules. There are going to be people, occasionally, who will not do so. It is then incumbent upon us who -- upon us who have enforcement responsibilities to make sure that we hold those people accountable, and I think our record shows that over the last 4 1/2 years we have been -- we've done that."

The Wall Street Journal provides a full transcript of Holders' remarks here.

The Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration also chimed in on the problem with a report Tuesday. The inspector general cited "ineffective management" as the reason the IRS caused unnecessary delays and information requests from conservative groups for more than 18 months. The IRS has now resolved the problems, the report says, yet should put measures in place to make sure it doesn't happen again. The report suggests that the IRS better track tax-exempt group applications under review and train employees before election cycles.

The report also clears the White House and others outside the IRS from wrongdoing.

"All of these officials stated that the criteria were not influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS," the report states.

The report also includes a response from an IRS official explaining how the service reviewed groups' tax-exempt status applications.

Mr. Obama responded to the report in a statement Tuesday night, saying Treasury Secretary Jack Lew would hold responsible the accountable IRS employees and make sure the recommendations are put into practice. "But regardless of how this conduct was allowed to take place, the bottom line is, it was wrong," Mr. Obama added.

The report and Mr. Obama's statement likely won't stop growing criticism from Republicans, much of it stemming from a senior Utah Republican's dealings with the service. Sen. Orrin Hatch had asked the IRS in June why it needed donor information from some groups seeking tax-exempt status. On Tuesday, he said the former IRS director had "purposefully misled" him. Others, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called for the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller.

Although Miller was deputy commissioner when Hatch first inquired, the focus will stay on Miller this week. He's due to testify Friday before the House Ways and Means Committee.

On Tuesday's NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown spoke with two reporters following the IRS story. The segment, featuring Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post and CQ Roll Call's Eliza Newlin Carney, is here or below:

Watch Video

The IRS scandal wasn't the only one drawing political ire, especially in regard to Holder. The Justice Department's handling of the Associated Press -- seizing reporters' phone records and investigating leaks that appeared in an AP article on a foiled terrorist attack -- prompted Republicans and the media to criticize the administration Tuesday.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called for Holder's resignation. Holder has come under fire before with Republicans, most recently when the House investigated the Fast and Furious gun smuggling operation.

Like on the IRS issue, Holder held firm at his Tuesday news conference. He had recused himself from the investigation, he said, and instead said the deputy attorney general authorized the phone records subpoena. "I'm confident that the people who are involved in this investigation, who I know for a great many years and I've worked with for a great many years, followed all of the appropriate Justice Department regulations and did things according to DOJ rules," Holder said.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote to the Associated Press president, defending the investigation. "The subpoenas were limited to a reasonable period of time and did not seek the content of any calls," Cole wrote.

Holder said the government leak that spawned the AP subpoena, however, was "within the top two or three most serious leaks that I've ever seen. It put the American people at risk."

Watch Holder's address here or below:

Watch Video

Of course, Carney was pressed on both issues at his press briefing Tuesday. While he would not comment on the specifics of the AP story, Carney said, "I can tell you that the president feels strongly that we need the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism."

Watch that here or below.

Watch Video

The main event Wednesday will be Holder's testimony on Capitol Hill. We'll live-stream the hearing at pbs.org/newshour.

Holder and the Justice Department's biggest critics may lie outside of Congress and government altogether.

News organizations and journalism groups were unsparing in their criticism. The New York Times editorial board accused the Obama administration of having "a chilling zeal for investigating leaks and prosecuting leakers," and said the White House had "failed to offer a credible justification" for its actions.

The editorial board of the Washington Post concluded that any national security threat in the matter was probably "outweighed by the damage to press freedom and governmental transparency."

The head of the American Society of News Editors said the administration's "outrageous actions" were "appalling" and invited Holder to join ASNE's June convention to "explain the Justice Department's actions to our editors."

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a letter to Holder, demanded the Justice Department return or destroy the phone records, while Poynter laid out "what journalists should know."

Meanwhile, David Carr of the New York Times compared the AP situation to Bloomberg News reporters' breach of client data and pulled both stories together with a key observation: "So many lines are being crossed in so many directions, it is tough to keep track of who are the victims and who are the perpetrators." (Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler weighed in on the matter Monday.)

Watch the NewsHour's coverage of the AP and Justice Department controversies here or below:

Watch Video

LINE ITEMS

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday called for the retraining of tens of thousands of U.S. military recruiters and sexual assault prevention officers in the wake of a new revelation that an Army sergeant in charge of handling sexual assault cases at Fort Hood, Texas, is under investigation for alleged sex abuse crimes, according to Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post.

A majority of civilian Pentagon employees will be forced to take unpaid furloughs of up to 11 days this summer as a result of sequestration -- a few days less than expected, reports Anna Mulrine of the Christian Science Monitor.

Rep.-elect Mark Sanford, R-S.C., will officially be sworn-in Wednesday to rejoin the House.

Pablo Pantoja, who was the Republican National Committee's Florida Hispanic Outreach Director, is leaving the party because a controversial Heritage Foundation study and will become a Democrat.

At least six House Republicans are determined not to pass the Senate Gang of Eight immigration bill, reports Politico's Ginger Gibson.

Former Rep. Joe Sestak, who in 2010 defeated Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in a Democratic primary and then lost the Senate race to Republican Pat Toomey, is preparing for a rematch.

CNN's Jake Tapper reports there are some contradictions about the leaked Benghazi talking points.

Vermont will become the first state to pass legislation allowing physicians to prescribe lethal medication to certain terminally ill patients.

Oh, Joe! No. 467: chocolate bullets.

Upworthy crafts a completely amazing video about income distribution in America.

Politico's Maggie Haberman says Anthony Weiner has hired a campaign manager.

Takoma Park, Md., is the first U.S. city to allow 16-year-olds to vote in local elections.

The House will likely vote Thursday on repealing the Affordable Care Act -- for the 37th time.

NEWSHOUR ROUNDUP

We live-streamed on the HatCam Wednesday morning. Watch the video of members of Team NewsHour -- including your Morning Line duo Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij -- running the ACLI Capital Challenge race, three miles for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Christina interviews author Nicco Mele about his book "The End of Big." Watch that here or below -- and weigh in on the comments thread with your thoughts on whether or not technology has empowered us.

Five families whose lives were radically impacted by U.S. immigration laws shared their stories with the NewsHour. Production assistant Cindy Huang produced the special report here.

How did Watergate affect you? Let us know ahead of our Friday special report looking back at the scandal that changed American politics and made the NewsHour what it is today.

Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser looks at the BRCA gene test and what Angelina Jolie's announcement means in the bigger picture. And Ali Weinberg of NBC writes about her decision to pursue a mastectomy as a young woman.

What more can you say? Feline Fans Unite at Internet Cat Video Festival.

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Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij contributed to this report.

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