President Obama’s top lawyer was notified in April that the Treasury Department’s inspector general had finished an audit of the Internal Revenue Service and uncovered the targeting of conservative groups, according to a report.
The Wall Street Journal reported late Sunday that a senior administration official said White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler learned about the inspector general’s conclusions during the week of April 22, including that IRS agents had directed unfair scrutiny toward Tea Party groups and others who were seeking tax exemption.
The report that White House lawyers may have known the report’s findings weeks before they became public will likely fuel GOP questions about when other senior administration officials first learned about the scandal and if the president should have been notified sooner.
President Obama has said he first learned about the IRS misconduct when the public did, on May 10.
The inspector general’s office said it notified Treasury Secretary Lew about the audit in March, but that he did not learn about the report findings until they went public.
The White House declined to say if Ruemmler had shared knowledge of the inspector general’s findings with other senior administration staff, according to the Journal.
The disclosure of the IRS political targeting has brought criticism from both parties, with Congress beginning hearings. President Obama called the conduct “outrageous” last week and sought and received the resignation of Steven Miller, the acting director of the IRS.
Despite those actions, many GOP lawmakers are questioning if the political targeting was directed or ordered by senior officials in the administration and want further answers on when top Treasury and White House officials first learned of the scandal.
On Sunday, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he believed that a special counsel would eventually be “necessary” to look into the IRS.
The White House, also fighting criticism over the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records and questions over its handling of the Benghazi terror attack, pushed back on Sunday, with senior Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer mounting a vigorous defense of their handling of the IRS matter.
Pfeiffer vowed that the White House would thoroughly investigate the scandal and ensure it “never happens again.”
He denied that the White House in any way influenced or pressured IRS employees to take tougher actions against conservative groups and, citing the inspector general’s report, said that no one in the White House had seen the details of the audit beforehand.
“It’s important to know what we actually knew, which is just that there was an investigation; it was coming to conclusion. Not that we knew the results. We didn’t see the report until it was released last Wednesday,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Pfeiffer said the White House was right not to act before the release of the report.
“You have a cardinal rule, which is that you do nothing to interfere with an independent investigation, and you do nothing to offer the appearance of interfering investigation,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “So we, I think, feel like we handled this the appropriate way.”
Pfeiffer also warned Republicans not to politicize the probes.
“We are going to work with Congress, as the president said, in legitimate oversight,” he said. “What we’re not going to participate in is partisan fishing expeditions designed to distract from the real issues at hand.”
GOP lawmakers on Sunday, however, made it clear they would pursue the IRS matter aggressively.
“There's a lot of issues here we need to get bottom of. We need to find out what really happened and ensure that we can begin to regain some trust in our government,” said Portman on ABC. “That's my concern.”