RON FOURNIER of the National Journal Group was part of the round table on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday morning, lighting into President Obama over the ever-evolving IRS mess: “I’m really not interested in what the president knew two weeks ago. I’m more interested in knowing whether the president or anybody working on his behalf in the White House or at the campaign had knowledge of or directing the targeting during the campaign. I’m not going to assume that the answer’s yes, but we sure as hell shouldn’t assume that the answer is no.”
You’ve seen the rhetorical distillation of this idea as a question — “What did the president know and when did he know it?” — and as a single phrase. That phrase is “plausible deniability,” that durable cold-war idea and one very unsettling to hear in the context of actions by the Obama administration: the strategy, in no way singular to the Obama White House, that well-meaning underlings would keep bad news away from the boss, the better to establish unassailable cover for the president whenever the blowback hit the fan.
It could be there’s no there there. President Obama is an able student of constitutional history; we can be sure he knows about the constitutional crisis that was skirted during the Nixon administration, when the Watergate scandal was in full flower. You have to hope that Obama’s smart enough not to repeat that hubris of the national past.
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As we know now with benefit of 40 years of hindsight, President Nixon didn’t even need the Plumbers to do their dirty and politically fatal work at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972. He was already poised to win the election. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee, was plagued with intraparty squabbling, a muddled campaign message, the disastrous Thomas Eagleton situation, and a building narrative in middle America that McGovern was for “amnesty, acid and abortion.”
Fast forward to 2012. The serial ineptitudes of the Mitt Romney campaign would similarly seem to have made it unnecessary for President Obama, on a relative glide path to a second term, to put his thumb on the scale by directing the IRS to surveill conservative 501(c) (4) donor groups in the runup to an election he was increasingly favored to win. What the hell would he do that for? He was gonna flatten Romney anyway. The Tea Party orgs that organized as 501(c) (4) groups were trying to do with money what they never could do with message.
Use the IRS to spy on right-wing donor groups? For the president to do that in the face of a GOP campaign that by last October proved it didn’t know up from down, to do that in the face of the tragic historical arc of the Nixon presidency would be the height of folly, something displaying a historical, chilling arrogance for the rule of law.
The IRS as spies? Hell, not even Dick Cheney thought of doing that.
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WE HOLD out the hope that Barack Obama is a better president, a better leader, than that. But there’s something else loose here, something more problematic for the Obama White House. While plausible deniability on the IRS matter may carry the day, it becomes another matter entirely when one considers the second crisis of Obama II.
The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives
The AP reported that the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012, in the heat of the presidential campaign.
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“These records,” Pruitt writes, “potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP's newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
The incidental symmetries between this and the Watergate era are, sadly, pretty obvious. They’re the kind of unfortunate dovetail that led The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson to warn that “[t]he president needs to understand that behavior commonly known as 'whistleblowing' and 'journalism' must not be construed as espionage.”
And there’s the heart of the problem: The ways in which a president’s leadership style seeps into the subculture of his own administration, with unexpected results.
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LEAVE IT TO Fournier to go overboard on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday, with a cheap and thoroughly inartful shot about Obama conducting a “jihad against the press.” In fact, what’s going isn’t so much an Obama war with the press per se — no more for him than any other administration, Ron — as it is a behavioral pattern of this president, his longstanding tendency to play cards not just close to the vest but inside the vest when he can, a penchant for secrecy, and a belief in communicating as little as possible about policy and its origins to as few as possible for as long as possible.
These aspects of his leadership style — secretive, withholding, deeply strategic — have come back to haunt him. These manifestations of the Obama personality are a problem not so much for any role in a deliberate, official White House policy of deception — marching orders from Team Obama to the IRS or the Justice Department or anyone else. But these agencies, while not acting on express orders from the White House, still appear to have taken their cues from their perception, their sense of how this president wants things done.
A general doesn’t always tell his troops to do something. It’s often the throughline of the command dynamic, the attitudinal overview that communicates exactly what’s expected. The problem is, sometimes the underlings go too far, make the wrong assumptions. They do what’s not expected. They may do what’s not even desired.
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Those two crises, involving Justice and the IRS, may eventually be navigable, thanks to good old plausible deniability. But the third of the Obama White House’s current challenges is a wholly self-inflicted wound. There’s no plausible deniability when your fingerprints are everywhere on the gun you shot yourself in the foot with.
The matter of the use of drones against enemy combatants and suspected terrorists has been an administration sore spot for years, but maybe never more than now, a day or so after the revelation that four American citizens have been killed by drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan since 2009.
That disclosure follows the Feb. 20 story in The New York Times, which reveals earlier proof of the White House preoccupation with keeping secrets.
“The White House is refusing to share fully with Congress the legal opinions that justify targeted killings, while maneuvering to make sure its stance does not do anything to endanger the confirmation of John O. Brennan as C.I.A. director,” reported Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti.
“Rather than agreeing to some Democratic senators’ demands for full access to the classified legal memos on the targeted killing program, Obama administration officials are negotiating with Republicans to provide more information on the lethal attack last year on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, according to three Congressional staff members.
“The strategy is intended to produce a bipartisan majority vote for Mr. Brennan in the Senate Intelligence Committee without giving its members seven additional legal opinions on targeted killing sought by senators and while protecting what the White House views as the confidentiality of the Justice Department’s legal advice to the president.”
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IT’S all part of a pattern of behavior that’s not easily undone. Fournier’s comment aside, the second term of the Obama administration has some issues with being straightforward, with being accessible — with achieving the kind of transparency he promised at the State of the Union on Feb. 12.
“In the months ahead,” he said that night, “I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
Clearly — not just on matters of the drones that target terrorist likelies but also on the matter of the government drone workers obliged to target journalists doing their jobs, or other functionaries in the government targeting the right-wing groups they think their boss doesn’t like — the Obama White House has to explain why right now, its evolving transparency is still so damned opaque.
Image credits: Obama: Via The Huffington Post. IRS seal detail: Public domain. McGovern: Public domain. AP logo: © 2013 The Associated Press. MQ-9 Predator drone in Afghanistan: Public domain.