WASHINGTON -- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney acknowledged on Monday that senior staffers to President Barack Obama were informed in late April that a forthcoming audit of the IRS would reveal that officials there had targeted conservative groups. Nevertheless, Carney said, they did not warn the president about the scandal soon to hit his administration.
Speaking to reporters at his daily briefing, Carney said White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler told top staffers that an inspector general audit was near completion after she herself was notified of the audit on April 24. Carney said Ruemmler had told Chief of Staff Denis McDonough about the forthcoming report but he did not name the other staffers who were briefed. Carney himself was kept in the dark. He said nobody saw an actual draft of the report.
Either way, aides decided not to tell the president about the upcoming bombshell, partly because it would have been inappropriate to intervene and partly because the contents of the report could have changed before its formal release.
"The president, I believe, he has faith that it is entirely appropriate that nobody here took any action to intervene in an ongoing audit," said Carney. "He believes it is entirely appropriate. Some matters are not appropriate to convey to him and this is one of them."
"The suggestion of alerting him is that he would do something," Carney added. "And if he were to do something, imagine what that story would look like ... It is absolutely the cardinal rule, as we see it, that we do not intervene in ongoing investigations."
The president was, indeed, quite busy around the time news of the upcoming IG report came to the attention of his top lawyer and senior staffers. The Boston bombing, for one thing, had taken place days earlier.
Several prominent lawyers have echoed the argument that it would have been "wholly inappropriate" for the administration to weigh in on the IG report before it was released, as Carney suggested.
Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel under former President Bill Clinton, told the Wall Street Journal that Ruemmler's office had acted appropriately in declining to brief the president.
If Ruemmler had gotten "involved and called people over to the White House for a full briefing to know all the details, you know what we'd be talking about now? We'd be talking about whether she had tried to interfere with the IG's investigation," Quinn said.
Still, Monday's briefing was a tough one for the White House, illustrating the difficulty it has had in moving past basic questions about the IRS investigation. Carney contradicted previous administration statements from just days ago, acknowledging that officials were actually told of the general conclusions of the investigation and not just that investigation itself was taking place.
"There was an indication at the top-line level of what the likely findings would be," Carney said, "the fact that they would likely conclude that this conduct had occurred, inappropriately."
When news of the scandal first broke 10 days ago, the White House had insisted that Ruemmler's office was only aware that an investigation was underway, not of its findings.
"My understanding is that the White House Counsel's Office was alerted in the week of April 22nd of this year, only about the fact that the IG was finishing a review about matters involving the office in Cincinnati. But that's all they were informed as a normal sort of heads-up," Carney said during a briefing last week.
“The first that the White House was made aware of it was from the Treasury Department a few weeks ago," senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "And not the details of what happened, not the results of the investigation, but that an independent investigation was about to conclude."
Carney on Monday dismissed the apparent inconsistency in the statements, saying there were discussions about "when the audit would be completed and what its findings might be." But top staffers also understood that the report was not yet finalized and that it would be inappropriate to intervene, even with respect to how it was made public, he said.