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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Sound, Fury, And The IRS Mess

by Richard Tofel, ProPublica

ProPublica’s job is to report the news rather than to make news ourselves, but sometimes we find an article of ours to be itself a subject of public debate. Last week was such a time, when two articles we had published back in December and January became the subject of significant attention in light of the uproar over IRS oversight of the process for granting tax exemption to so-called “social welfare” groups under section 501(c)(4). We triggered that attention with a third article we published on May 13, setting out everything we knew about the circumstances of our previous stories.

Largely ignored in a public outcry last week — radio rants, Twitter storms, congressional, presidential and prosecutorial posturing– were the following:

Our pieces in December and January raised very serious questions about whether six different “dark money” political groups seeking tax exemption had made false statements on their applications. Those applications are signed under penalty of perjury. If any false statements were made knowingly, the groups — including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS — may have committed a crime. There is no indication, however, that either the IRS or the Department of Justice has done anything since January to investigate whether such crimes were indeed committed. The groups in question happen all to be conservative. Not one congressional Republican has, to my knowledge, expressed any concern about this possible criminality.

Even more remarkably, leading public figures have asserted as fact that they know how we came to receive nine documents in the mail — statements that appear to have little basis (and in some cases, no basis at all).

The former acting Commissioner of Internal Revenue said on May 17 that the agency’s inspector general had found that the disclosure to us was “inadvertent” — we had requested the applications, but they should not have been sent to us before they were approved. The IRS followed later the same day with a statement to the same effect — but then refused to answer questions about who had made the mistake, and why they should be believed when they denied having acted intentionally (and thus likely denied committing a crime).

What really seems to have happened at the IRS in Cincinnati, across the last three presidencies (a Democrat, then a Republican, then a Democrat), and across two turns of the partisan screw in the House of Representatives, from Republicans to Democrats to Republicans again, is that the agency has been starved of resources, and badly mismanaged.

But while it took the IRS four long days to tell people about their conclusion of “inadvertence” and the same four days for ProPublica to report out the dysfunction , people like Rush Limbaugh, and their followers and fellow travelers on Twitter and in the fringe press, rushed headlong to judgment. Here’s what Limbaugh said about the mid-level federal employees at the IRS in Cincinnati on Tuesday: “The people at these government agencies have been stocked with leftists for decades now, and they’re all activists.” What evidence did he offer for this? None. How could he know that someone in a large bureaucracy, shuffling thousands of pieces of paper, didn’t make a mistake? He couldn’t, and he didn’t.

Well, you might say, that’s Limbaugh. But it wasn’t just Limbaugh. Stephen Moore writes for the Wall Street Journal (where I worked for 15 years, and where Mr. Rove also writes). Yet, he called the documents we were sent “ illegally leaked.” He knew nothing more than Limbaugh. “What is the motivation,” Moore asked, “for leaking these documents? The answer is that the left is trying to dry up the money of Tea Party and conservative groups by intimidating donors.” He noted that another group, in another case, had its donor list released. But in our case, there were no donor lists, and we had redacted the limited financial information on the forms we published. Moreover, these applications are completed with the expectation that they’ll eventually be made public — because they are when they are approved. Never mind all that; presumably no need to mention it.

And what of the investigators? Congressional committees leapt into action. The inspector general for the IRS had apparently already investigated. The president demanded another investigation; the Department of Justice said it had commenced a criminal inquiry.

Knowing that such is the way in Washington, we waited at ProPublica for someone to send us a subpoena, show up on our doorstep, or maybe just call. Nothing. Nothing since December 13, when we told the IRS we had these documents they weren’t supposed to have sent us — or since the next day, when we published that fact. Nothing before the inspector general reached his conclusion, nothing before the congressional hearings started televising their demands for answers and their righteous indignation, nothing since.

In point of fact, the investigators would have found out that we have nothing of value to them. But the fact that they didn’t even ask tells you a lot. And it reinforces the point that much of the heat generated last week on this subject is just the latest expression of Washington cynicism and its consequences — that the talk show hosts and their fellow travelers, and the representatives and senators and officials in the executive branch, aren’t really looking for answers here. They’re just putting on a show.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

For Obama, More Prose Than Poetry In Second Inaugural

by Richard Tofel, ProPublica

As we did four years ago, we asked Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president and author of a book on President Kennedy’s inaugural address, to provide instant analysis of today’s speech. Here are his thoughts:

In 2009, in the flush of his first election, Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address that, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” Today, perhaps chastened by the trials of governing and the difficulty of gaining election a second time, he did not so much acknowledge that the cynics of 2009 had been right as devote himself to trying, one more time, to move the ground beneath them.

The critical portion of the address seemed to be this: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time… We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” Whether such a call, even with the president’s present strength and confidence, will shift the ground will be the great question of the next period in our politics and history.

The speech centered on the two fundamental American texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama quoted the heart of Jefferson’s Declaration verbatim, and then turned repeatedly, as his organizing rhetorical device, to the opening words of the Constitution: “We, the People.” By the speech’s end, seeking a call to action and perhaps a counterweight to the polarization of Washington, “we, the people” became “you and I, as citizens.”

Along the way, in addition to drawing on the words of Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama managed to reference Lincoln four times in two paragraphs, adverting to the Gettysburg Address (“government of, and by, and for the people”), Lincoln’s second inaugural (“blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword”), the “House Divided” speech (“no union…could survive half-slave and half-free”) and Lincoln’s second message to Congress (“made ourselves anew”). The one source not quoted in the speech, in a striking departure from inaugural tradition, seems to have been the Bible.

Indeed, the speech overall was more prosaic than most inaugurals. It was somewhat surprising, in this context, to hear a defense of entitlements, a disquisition on climate change, and calls for immigration reform and an end to voter suppression legislation. In all of this, Obama’s model may have been Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 second inaugural — the first such address delivered in January — which was a clarion call for liberal politics and an attempt to cast it in the American mainstream. Sixteen days later FDR over-reached with his Court-packing plan, and his influence in domestic affairs began to ebb.

All of this reminds us that second inaugurals are harder. The lofty hopes of office-taking must give way to the sober experience of office-holding. Nearly all of the immortal words of addresses past come from first inaugurals: Jefferson’s “We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists;” Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory;” FDR’s “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself;” Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Only Lincoln’s second inaugural — “with malice toward none” — lives on in the same way.

And yet, second inaugurals come from a place of strength. By definition, they can be given only by presidents whose tenure has been validated again at the ballot box. Of our 43 presidents (Grover Cleveland is both “22” and “24”), Barack Obama is only the 17th to have had the privilege of delivering a second inaugural address. (Another four presidents won an election after succeeding to the office, which may be similar, at least for these purposes.)

The first big decision President Obama faced in crafting today’s address, I think, was how rhetorical he wanted it to be. Obama came to the presidency on soaring wings of rhetoric, from the “red states/blue states” of the 2004 Convention keynote that introduced him to much of the country, to the vision of post-racial triumph when he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, to his speech on race when the controversy on Rev. Jeremiah Wright threatened to sink his campaign, to his outdoor acceptance speech in Denver, to that unforgettable Election Night in Grant Park.

In the face of all that, many of us found his first inaugural somewhat muted, with its Biblical injunction that “the time has come to set aside childish things” and its command that “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” Perhaps Obama had internalized Mario Cuomo’s observation that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Perhaps he had come nearly to distrust the power of his own instrument. In any event, he kept it largely under wraps during his first term, pumping up the volume only occasionally (for instance in the critical congressional address on health care), but often leaving his listeners with the sense that he had fallen a bit flat, as in his second Convention acceptance last summer in Charlotte, and almost disastrously in his apparent failure to prepare a closing statement in his first debate with Mitt Romney.

In recent months, however, Obama has again seemed to find his voice — or to reach for it. We saw this on Election Night 2012 and again in his speech at Newtown. I began to expect that we would see it again in the inaugural.

There were moments of such poetry today, but they seemed outweighed by the prose. The president’s calculation today seemed to be that the occasion presented a chance — perhaps a last chance — to recall the political system to what Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, called the “better angels of our nature.” What the prospects are for such a transformation, only the days ahead can reveal.