In this Fox News Sunday Show With Chris Wallace: ‘Hell week’ for the White House? Reaction from Dan Pfeiffer and Rep. Paul Ryan
WALLACE: And hello again from Fox News in Washington.
Someone described it as “hell week” for the White House, as the president and top advisers had to confront three major scandals, try to limit the damage to the administration, and to pursue Mr. Obama’s second term agenda.
Joining us now is the president’s senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. And, Dan, welcome back to “Fox News Sunday.
DAN PFEIFFER, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you, Chris.
WALLACE: President Obama was asked a broad question about the IRS scandal this week and he gave a narrow answer. Let’s take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you assure the American people that nobody in the White House knew about the agency’s actions before your counsel’s office found out on April 22nd?
OBAMA: I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the IG report before the IG report had been leaked to press.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: So he only talked, the president, about the IG report. The question was broader, about any (ph) agency IRS activities. Can you say that no one at the White House knew anything about the IRS targeting conservatives before information about the IG report was given to the White House in April?
PFEIFFER: Yes. The first time, as we’ve said, that anyone heard about this at the White House was when the counsel’s office at the Treasury Department called the counsel office of the White House a few weeks ago to let us know that there was an investigation that was coming to conclusion. We didn’t know the details of it. We didn’t see the report. So we didn’t know facts at that point, just that such an investigation was coming to a conclusion.
WALLACE: But you didn’t know anything about the idea that the IRS was targeting conservatives? You didn’t even know the IG was investigating that?
PFEIFFER: No, we knew that the IG was investigating a potential targeting of political groups.
WALLACE: You did know that?
PFEIFFER: We did know, yes. We’ve said that, Jay Carney said that. We knew that from the counsel’s office just a few weeks ago.
WALLACE: No, but I’m saying before that.
PFEIFFER: No, no one knew that. No one knew that.
WALLACE: All right. Here’s the problem with that, because in the congressional hearing on Friday, the IRS’s inspector general, Russell George, said that he had talked to Neal Wolin, the deputy treasury secretary around June of 2012, that’s right in the middle of the presidential campaign, and told him that he was investigating IRS targeting of conservative groups. Are we to believe that the No. 2 man in Treasury never told Tim Geithner and Tim Geithner never told — again, right in the middle of a presidential campaign — never told anyone in the White House about something this politically explosive?
PFEIFFER: Here’s the cardinal rule when you deal with situations like this. Is you never interfere with an independent investigation, you never give the appearance of interfering with an independent investigation. So as the Treasury Department said, they didn’t tell anyone in the White House. The Treasury Department also said that all that Deputy Secretary Wolin was informed about was that such an inquiry was beginning. The inspector general also said he gave the same heads-up to Congress, including Congressman Issa, who had the requested the original probe. But there was no details, no evidence. And as Congressman Issa said as to why he didn’t talk about this publicly, is that when you’re dealing with a nonpartisan agency like the IRS, you wait to see what the actual facts are before you go out and make assertions.
WALLACE: But, again, I just want to make it clear. You’re saying that nobody after that meeting between Russell George and Neal Wolin, nobody told the White House that this IRS IG investigation was going on?
PFEIFFER: That’s what the Treasury Department said, and yes, that’s what I’m telling you.
WALLACE: The rise of the Tea Party, and the application for tax exempt groups was a big deal at this point in the wake of the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court. It was a big issue for Democrats. In September of 2010, Max Baucus, the Democratic chair of Senate Finance, called on the IRS to investigate groups applying for tax exempt status.
In March of 2012, seven Democratic senators urged the IRS to beef up scrutiny. Dan, weren’t the marching orders at this point to the IRS pretty clear? You had a number of Democrats, you had a bunch of Tea Party groups applying for tax exempt status, and you had Democrats in Congress saying to the IRS, we want you to investigate?
PFEIFFER: Look, don’t take our word for it. Look at what the independent inspector general said in the report, and to Congress on Friday. That one, no evidence that there was any outside influences, other than this came directly from the IRS. And two, that was not necessarily based on political motivation. That’s what the independent inspector general said.
WALLACE: You say “not necessarily based on.”
PFEIFFER: What he said this was a management issue, not political motivation.
WALLACE: Well, except the IRS said something different. The man in charge of the IRS tax exempt division, Joseph Grant, until he recently announced he’s going to step down, said that part of the reason for the increased scrutiny for certain groups — and this was his direct quote in a letter to the inspector general as part of this report — numerous referrals from the public, media, watchdog groups, and members of congress. He’s saying, yes, we were getting outside pressure and that’s part of the reason we took this increased scrutiny of these groups.
PFEIFFER: Well, I can only tell you what the independent inspector-general found.
But here’s the real issue, which is what happened there, whatever the motivation, was outrageous and inexcusable. And so what we have to do right now is fix the problem, make sure it never happens again, and restore public trust here, because it’s critical that Americans know that the IRS is operating entirely in a nonpartisan way. And so that’s what we’re focused on.
WALLACE: But on the one hand you have Republican groups complaining about the fact that the Tea Party is being targeted. And that was going on all through 2010, 2011, 2012. A number of those who talked about — Congressman Issa. I mean, Republicans were calling on the White House, calling on IRS, saying that the Tea Party groups are getting hammered at the same time that the Democrats are calling for more scrutiny. You’re saying that there was no politics in the IRS decision?
PFEIFFER: I can only tell you what the independent inspector- general said. But we’re going look at all of this. The president’s appoint a new acting commissioner of the IRS who is a career public servant, who served presidents of both parties, and he’ll do a 30-day, top-down review to make sure this never happens again, and that anyone who did anything wrong is held accountable.
WALLACE: Did the president ever feel independently — forget the IRS independent-general — hey, I’m getting heat from Democrats to investigate, I’m getting all of these complaints from Republicans, why don’t I as president step into this?
PFEIFFER: No president would get involved in an independent IRS investigation. That would be wholly inappropriate.
WALALCE: Even to say, we ought to take a look at this?
PFEIFFER: For very good reasons in this town, the White House stays as far as away from the IRS and lets them do their business.
WALLCE: You say it’s wholly inappropriate, and at various points the president has talked about outrage, the anger that he feels, the anger that the American people feel. Why? Anger, outrage, over what?
PFEIFFER: Because it is critically important that the American people have trust that the IRS, which is involved — has a very intimate with people and their finances — it’s critical that they know it’s done in a nonpartisan way. And this was a breach of the trust. Regardless of the motivation, regardless of how it happened, it was a breach of the trust, so we have to fix it, we have to restore that trust.
WALLACE: Well, I want to talk about public confidence and breaches of trust, because an IRS official, Sarah Hall Ingram, who was, when all of this started, was in charge of the tax exempt division, is now running the IRS implementation of Obamacare.
Is the president, as part of this question of public confidence, is he going to replace her so that people can have confidence as IRS — as Obamacare is implemented over the next year or two, and the IRS’s role in it, that there’s no political agenda?
PFEIFFER: Well, I think first it’s important to note this individual was not named in the inspector-general’s report. No one has suggested she’s done anything wrong yet. We’re going to — the acting commissioner is going to do a 30-day review. And everyone who did anything wrong is going be held accountable.
But I think before everyone in this town convicts this person in a court of public opinion with no evidence, let’s actually get the facts and make decisions after that.
WALLACE: But Sarah Hall Ingram’s role in all of this is going to be reviewed?
PFEIFFER: Everyone — there’s going to be a top-down review of the IRS and everything will be looked at, but there’s nothing to suggest she did anything wrong.
Let’s turn to Benghazi. And I want to ask you about one lingering question, which is the president’s actions on 9/11, the night of the attack, because we don’t know very much about that. We do know that in the afternoon he had already scheduled meeting with Defense Secretary Panetta as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey when he heard about this while they were in a meeting on an unrelated subject. He said that wanted them to deploy forces as soon as possible.
The next time that he shows up, is as Hillary Clinton says that she spoke to him at around 10:00 that night after the attack at the consulate, not as it turned out at the annex, but the attack at the consulate was — had ended. Question, what did the president do the rest of that night to pursue Benghazi?
PFEIFFER: Well, look, the president was kept up to date on this as it was happening throughout the entire night, from the moment it started until the very end. And because this is a critically — this was a horrible tragedy. These are people that he sent abroad whose lives are in risk, people who work for him. And I recognize that there’s a series of conspiracy theories the Republicans have been spinning about this since the night it happened, but there’s been an independent review of this, congress has held hearings, we provided 250,000 pages of — 250,000 pages of documents up there. There’s been 11 hearings, 20 staff briefings. And everyone has found the same thing, this is a tragedy.
And so the question here is not what happened that night. The question is what are we going to do to move forward ensuring that this doesn’t happen again. That’s why Congress should act on what the president called for earlier this week, to pass legislation to allow us to actually implement all the recommendations of the independent accountability review board so we can protect our diplomats around the world, because when we send our diplomats off into far-flung places, there’s an inherent level of risk. We should do what we can to mitigate that risk.
WALLACE: But with due respect, you didn’t answer my question. What did the president do that night?
PFEIFFER: He was kept — he was in constant touch that night with his national security team and kept up to date with the events as they were happening.
WALLACE: When you say his national security team, he didn’t talk to the secretary of state, except for the one time when the first attack was over. He didn’t talk to the secretary of defense. He didn’t talk to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Who was he talking to?
PFEIFFER: He was talking to his national security staff, his National Security Council, the people who keep him up to date about briefings as they happen.
WALLACE: Was he in the Situation Room?
PFEIFFER: He was kept up to date throughout the day.
WALLACE: Do you not know whether he was in the Situation Room?
PFEIFFER: I don’t remember what room the president was in on that night. And that’s a largely irrelevant fact.
WALLACE: Well —
PFEIFFER: The point is — the question is — the premise of your question is that somehow there was something that could have been done differently, OK, that would have changed the outcome here. The accountability review board has looked at this. People have looked at it. It’s a horrible tragedy, what happened, and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
WALLACE: Here’s the point, though. The ambassador goes missing, ends up the first ambassador in more than 30 years is killed. Four Americans, including the ambassador, are killed. Dozens of Americans are in jeopardy. The president at 4:00 in the afternoon says to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to deploy forces. No forces are deployed. Where is he while all this is going on?
PFEIFFER: This has been testified to by the —
WALLACE: Well, no. No one knows where he was, or how he was involved, or who told him there were no forces —
PFEIFFER: The suggestion of your question is that somehow the president —
WALLACE: I just want to know what the answer is.
PFEIFFER: The assertions from Republicans here that somehow the president allowed this to happen or didn’t take action is offensive. It is absolutely an offensive premise. And there’s no evidence to support it.
WALLACE: We are just — I’m simply asking a question. Where was he? What did he do? How did he respond? Who told him that you can’t deploy forces, and what was his response to that? PFEIFFER: As I said, the president was in the White House that day, he was kept up to date by his national security team. He spoke to the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs earlier. The secretary of state later. And as events unfolded, he was kept up to date.
WALLACE: Let me — here’s one of the reasons that people have questions about this. This week, the White House released 100 pages of emails, all the communications between the various agencies in the two days before Susan Rice came on this and four other Sunday talk shows.
I just want to put up a couple of the emails from Friday, Friday the 14th, two days before Susan Rice made her television appearance. Friday, 6:48 p.m., Tommy Vietor in the White House. “FYI, Brennan,” that’s the president’s counter-terrorism adviser, “we’ll have edits. I’ll waiting for those.” 7:39 p.m., Victoria Nuland at State, “talking points could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings. So why do we want to feed that either?” But here’s what the president’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said about all of this last November. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The White House and State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two — these two institutions were changing the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility,” because consulate was inaccurate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: That’s the problem. He says there was a single adjustment by the White House and State. Any fair reading of the emails, just the two I read, that’s totally misleading.
PFEIFFER: I think we should look — now that the emails are out, and everyone can look at them — and I think one of the problems that there’s so much controversy here is because one of the emails was doctored by a Republican source and given to the media to falsely smear the president.
WALLACE: I’m not talking about that.
PFEIFFER: No, I know, but that’s an important point here, because now the emails are out–
WALLACE: I am basing mine — would you agree that the ones I read–
PFEIFFER: Absolutely — I am not — absolutely. The point here is that the emails you’re referring to were provided to Congress two months ago. Congress looked at them, didn’t say a word, did not bat an eye. They were provided in the context of John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director. After seeing the emails, they approved John Brennan with a large bipartisan vote. So this has been looked at. There is no issue here.
What’s clear from these emails is three things that debunk all of the Republican conspiracy theories here. First the idea that there was a protest is in every version of the talking points put forward, edited and written by the CIA.
WALLACE: They say the attack — I just read it this morning. They say the attack was inspired by the protests in Cairo. There is no mention of a protest against the video in any of the talking points.
PFEIFFER: Yes, the idea that — the point is that the — the argument here has been, from Republicans, is that it was — had nothing to do with the protest, and that was somehow fabricated by the administration for political reasons. That is clearly not true.
WALLACE: (inaudible) about the video in the talking points?
PFEIFFER: There was a mention that the inspiration is that —
WALLACE: What happened in Cairo.
WALLACE: But no demonstration against the video in Benghazi?
PFEIFFER: The fact that that happened is what a lot of people (inaudible). The second thing in the talking points is that the references to terror and al Qaeda were removed, not by the White House, not by the State Department, but by the CIA. And this is why–
WALLACE: But the State Department was demanding that it be removed.
PFEIFFER: But this is the third thing that’s clear from this, is that the motivation here was to try to get it right as best we could in a very challenging situation with changing information. And two, to protect the integrity of the investigation. That is why (inaudible). In the actual email that was released, not the doctored version, the actual email, the White House involvement here is to say we have to protect the equities, particularly the investigation, because that’s what’s important, because we want to bring these people to justice.
WALLACE: All right.
PFEIFFER: And I do think, I will say, as it relates to the doctored email, the question for the Republicans is, are they going to be, is Congressman Issa and others are going to be as interested in tracking down the Republican who doctored this email and released it as they are in investigating all these other things? I certainly hope they would be.
WALLACE: We’re going to agree to disagree on the emails. I have one last question for you, because we’re running out of time.
Some critics say, that when you take a look at all of these scandals, the confluence of these scandals, AP, Benghazi, IRS, that it raises questions about the president’s activist government solutions to problems, and they also note how often the president says that he found out about any problems when all the rest of us did. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: I first learned about it from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this.
CARNEY: He found out about the news reports yesterday on the road.
Everyone knows, the president did not know about this tactic until he heard about it through the media.
OBAMA: It was something we found out about along with all of you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: How can people have confidence in the president’s programs when so often — and this isn’t just coming from Republican conspiracy — you’re seeing this in the mainstream media. So often he seems to be a bystander to the problems in his own administration.
PFEIFFER: I think that’s an absurd proposition. If you — let’s theme (ph) out what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the IRS, and the Department of Justice investigation. What would be a real problem is —
WALLACE: And Fast and Furious.
PFEIFFER: Which is also a Department of Justice investigation. What would be a real problem would be if he was involved in those things. Like I said, the cardinal rule is you don’t get involved in independent investigations, and you don’t give the appearance of doing so. So that’s the right thing.
The question here is, now that — when problems come forward, how does the president react? In the case of the IRS, within a few hours of the actual report being released, he’d met with the Treasury secretary, with the Treasury Department, addressed the nation, and taken action, including the — asking for the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner. So it’s how you respond to those problems. And that’s what the president did.
WALLACE: Dan, thank you. Thanks for coming here. (CROSSTALK)
WALLACE: Taking al of my questions. We’ll disagree about some of the answers, but thank you as always.
PFEIFFER: Thank you.
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