The Wall Street Journal's Kimberley Strassel has written three columns in the last three weeks arguing that President Obama is culpable in the controversy over the IRS scrutinizing conservative non-profit groups because his public rhetoric sent signals to tax agency bureaucrats directing them to target his political opponents. We've taken to calling this phenomenon "Bureaucrat Whispering." Strassel has been its chief evangelist, and the theory has caught on with conservatives who are eager to tie the president to the IRS controversy but can't demonstrate an actual link.
In the latest iteration, Strassel argues that it can't be a coincidence that the IRS issued its August 2010 "Be On The Lookout" (BOLO) document that singled out conservative non-profits for additional scrutiny at the same time Obama was campaigning against "conservative groups that they claimed were rigging the electoral system." The fact that the IRS initiated the process of providing this scrutiny of conservative groups five months before the BOLO document was issued -- and five months before Strassel's first example of Obama supposedly setting "the context in which the targeting happened" -- does much to undermine the allegation.
Per Strassel's June 7 column:
Perhaps the only useful part of the inspector general's audit of the IRS was its timeline. We know that it was August 2010 when the IRS issued its first "Be On the Lookout" list, flagging applications containing key conservative words and issues. The criteria would expand in the months to come.
What else was happening in the summer and fall of 2010? The Obama administration and its allies continue to suggest the IRS was working in some political vacuum. What they'd rather everyone forget is that the IRS's first BOLO list coincided with their own attack against "shadowy" or "front" conservative groups that they claimed were rigging the electoral system.
Contrary to Strassel's assessment, there was one other useful tidbit in the inspector general's report: the timeline that identified "Around March 1, 2010" as the time when a manager at the IRS' office in Cincinnati "asked a specialist to search for other Tea Party or similar organizations' applications in order to determine the scope of the issue." That targeting began months before Strassel's first example of Obama sending secret nasty vibes to the IRS: an August 9, 2010, speech at a Democratic National Committee fundraising event.
Nonetheless, Strassel says it's obvious the White House was involved in the targeting:
The president of the United States spent months warning the country that "shadowy," conservative "front" groups -- "posing" as tax-exempt entities and illegally controlled by "foreign" players -- were engaged in "unsupervised" spending that posed a "threat" to democracy. Yet we are to believe that a few rogue IRS employees just happened during that time to begin systematically targeting conservative groups?
That's noteworthy, because in her May 24 column, Strassel said Obama's political attacks on conservatives didn't prove he was involved in the targeting:
None of this proves that Mr. Obama was involved in the IRS targeting of conservative nonprofits. But it does help explain how we got an environment in which the IRS thought this was acceptable.
And that was a reversal from her May 19 column, in which she wrote that "of course" the White House was involved:
Was the White House involved in the IRS's targeting of conservatives? No investigation needed to answer that one. Of course it was.
The idea that it can be proved one way or the other that the White House created an "environment" in which IRS employees were impelled to target conservatives is a dubious proposition. And that's why Strassel keeps swinging back and forth -- the White House's involvement is obvious, she just can't prove it.