Politics

Obama Tries To Tamp Down Three Controversies At Once

Damage control in D.C.

Susan Walsh / AP

WASHINGTON — A head rolled in the IRS scandal Wednesday. The White House released emails about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, too. And on Capitol Hill, members of Congress grilled Attorney General Eric Holder for hours over his agency’s collection of Associated Press phone records — and the White House announced its support for a press shield law to protect reporters in the future.

Now, the Obama Administration insists it’s back to business as usual. Or, at least, it hopes so.

After several days dominated by a series of explosive controversies, and complaints that the White House was slow to react, the administration shifted into high gear Wednesday. By the time the evening news casts started on the East Coast, the acting head of the IRS, Steven Miller, had been fired and 100 pages of White House emails on Benghazi were in the hands of reporters.

Obama put a public face on the IRS scandal response, announcing Miller’s resignation himself.

“Given the controversies surrounding this audit, it’s important to institute new leadership that can help restore leadership going forward,” Obama said. The president promised “new safeguards to make sure this kind of behavior cannot happen again.”

Just a few minutes earlier, reporters huddled in a White House conference room with several senior administration officials, going over the cache of emails about Benghazi, handed to reporters in three-ring binders. It was the same group of emails sent to Congress in February as part of a White House response to inquiries about the deaths of four Americans at a diplomatic compound in the Libyan city. Reporters were allowed to participate on the condition they not name the officials in the room or quote them directly, but as they went over the emails the officials made it clear they think the release should quell Republican concerns over the administration’s early statements about Benghazi.

“This was not a political process but an apolitical process in response to a request from Congress,” an administration official who was not in the room told BuzzFeed about the emails.

During the televised briefing around midday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney repeatedly told reporters the swirling scandals were not getting in the way of governing.

“These are the kinds of issues that we deal with here in this room and that the appropriate people deal with in an administration, but the vast majority of the people working for the President every day are working on the agenda that he laid out in his State of the Union address and in his inaugural address,” he said, “an agenda that is focused on what we can do to keep the economy growing; what we can to invest in infrastructure and in education; what we can do to expand our civil liberties; what we can do to enhance our national security.”

Carney also confirmed Obama had called Sen. Chuck Schumer to voice his support for the New York Democrat’s press shield law. It’s not clear if Schumer’s bill would protect the press against further dragnet-style phone record gathering by the federal government, but Carney said the president’s reenergized support for the legislation shows he’s serious about press concerns over the Justice Department’s actions. Carney again said Obama was a lover of press freedom, and sought to navigate a balance between letting reporters work freely and monitoring their work in the interests of protecting national security.

“Part of finding that balance — again, not specific to [the AP] case — but part of finding that balance he has long believed is enacting the kind of media shield law that he has supported since he was a senator and which he looks forward to being reintroduced in the Senate in the coming days and weeks,” Carney said.

Republicans have expressed mixed reactions to Obama’s attempts to stamp out the last few days’ fires.

House Speaker John Boehner welcomed the release of the Benghazi emails, but said through an aide that the release is not the end of the story.

“This release is long overdue and there are relevant documents the Administration has still refused to produce,” Boehner spokesperson Brendan Buck said. “We hope, however, that this limited release of documents is a sign of more cooperation to come.”

The firing of Miller at the IRS was met with some Republican praise — Rep. Darrell Issa said Obama “struck the right tone” on CNN — but Republicans said the IRS story didn’t die with Miller’s job, either.

“If the President is as concerned about this issue as he claims, he’ll work openly and transparently with Congress to get to the bottom of the scandal—no stonewalling, no half-answers, no withholding of witnesses,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.

Holder’s appearance on Capitol Hill wasn’t likely to silence any critics, either. He had a testy exchange with Issa and offered a lot of “I don’t know” to Republican questions.

But he was there, and the first part of crisis management, the White House seems to have concluded, is showing up.

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