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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

From right to left, Samantha Power, President Obama's nominee to be the next UN ambassador, walks with current UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Mr. Obama, and current National Security Adviser Tom Donilon as they leave the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington Wednesday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Samantha Power: Can Obama's UN nominee live down Israel comments?

By Correspondent / 06.06.13

Samantha Power has the kind of credentials and contacts that spark envy among Washington peers. She’s a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, confidant to President Obama, and a well-known global human rights crusader. Ms. Power is also married to Cass Sunstein, the president’s former White House regulations czar, making her one half of a legal power couple.

But the Harvard Law graduate, nominated by Mr. Obama yesterday to be the next UN ambassador, is about to experience the greatest initiation of all into capital city culture – the congressional confirmation process. And given the coverage spawned by the Rose Garden announcement of Power’s appointment, it could be a doozy.

Conservative headlines and blogs are blaring Power’s biggest verbal gaffes and political missteps:

“Samantha Power’s Five Worst Statements,” crows The Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing website.

On Townhall.com: “A Look at Obama's New UN Ambassador: Radical Samantha Power.”

“Samantha Power’s promotion to U.N. ambassador is a major disappointment,” writes Richard Grenell on Foxnews.com.

“In a position of power and proximity to the president of the United States, from which she could meaningfully act against any unfolding injustice, Power was largely silent and completely ineffective,” Mr. Grenell, a former spokesman for Bush-era UN Ambassador John Bolton, among others, says of Power’s White House work on the human-rights crisis in Sudan. “The NGO community was left wondering which Samantha Power was getting to speak inside the Oval Office.”

During the confirmation process, Republicans are gunning these days for anyone whose weaknesses can be targeted in an attempt to, by extension, knock an already beleaguered White House.

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel took a beating from his former Republican colleagues during his hearings to become Obama’s secretary of Defense. Mr. Hagel was, of course, ultimately successful, but he appeared weary and beaten down by the end of the process.

Power is no shrinking violet – and that’s sometimes gotten her into trouble. As an Obama loyalist during the bitter 2008 Democratic primary campaign, she famously called then-rival Hillary Rodham Clinton “a monster.” Power stepped down from her post with the campaign and apologized.

But, more importantly in the context of her UN assignment, she’s also made waves on the foreign-policy front.

In a well-circulated interview at the University of California at Berkeley more than a decade ago, Power said there are human-rights abuses occurring in Israel and that the US might need to intervene militarily. The remarks have prompted criticism of her as anti-Israel. She has struggled to walk back the comments, wooing influential pro-Israel rabbis, authors, and activists. It’s unlikely she’ll make it through the hearing without having to clarify her intentions where Israel is concerned.

Power has also slammed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for not doing more to address genocide in Darfur. And in a 2003 New Republic piece, she urged a general policy of apology for the nation’s past foreign policy missteps:

“A country has to look back before it can move forward. Instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors.”

Or maybe all the brewing conservative outrage could amount to a whole lot of nothing. Perhaps in the wake of the 2012 presidential contest, which produced an overwhelming gender gap that favored the president, the GOP has considered the optics of going after Power after effectively blocking another woman, Susan Rice, in her quest to be secretary of State. Alongside Power, Rice was, of course, elevated yesterday to national security adviser, a post that does not require the Senate’s affirmation.

Already a leading Republican voice against the Hagel and Rice confirmations has weighed in for Power.

In the wake of Obama’s announcement, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona issued his support, sending a signal to his cohorts that hers is likely no Hagel or Rice situation. The Israel questions will come, no doubt, but Power’s answers aren’t expected to derail the move to New York.

"I support President Obama's nomination of Samantha Power to become the next US ambassador to the United Nation," Senator McCain said in a statement. "I believe she is well qualified for this important position and hope the Senate will move forward on her nomination as soon as possible."

Pedestrians are reflected in the store window of a Verizon Wireless store near the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan, Thursday, in New York. The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of all Verizon business customers under a top secret court order, according to government documents leaked to Britain’s Guardian newspaper. (John Minchillo/AP)

Secret Verizon records collection: What is NSA looking for? (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.06.13

The Obama administration is secretly collecting all telephone records of Verizon business customers under a sweeping classified court order, according to government documents leaked to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

This order may be just the tip of the US data-mining iceberg. Given the wide-ranging nature of the Verizon request, the US government probably has filed similar orders with AT&T and other communications firms, say national-security experts.

It’s important to note that this does not constitute wiretapping per se. The Federal Bureau of Investigation isn’t asking for the recorded contents of conversations. Instead, it is gathering phone number logs, call duration time, geographic location, and related communications “metadata,” as allowed under a controversial section of the Patriot Act.

“On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls,” says an administration official quoted by the Associated Press.

But the indiscriminate nature of the request has startled many privacy experts and raises the question, why? What sort of investigation is the United States pursuing here?

“Was the motivation behind collecting these telephone records a current national-security threat? Or was it something like building a database – to be able to pursue future threats?” asks NBC’s First Read blog Thursday morning.

One possible answer is that it’s related to a cybersecurity probe.

“My extremely [wild] guess is that this is part of a hacking investigation, possibly even the alleged Iranian hacking of power companies in the US,” writes national-security expert Marcy Wheeler on her Emptywheel blog.

She bases her guess on the fact that the Verizon business-oriented enterprise targeted by the disclosed court order emphasizes cybersecurity when selling to customers, and that energy consumers are one of the enterprise's market strengths. At least one of its marketing case studies focuses on “Smart Grids,” power networks that use communication technology to run more efficiently – and that may be vulnerable to hacker sabotage.

“Precisely the kind of thing the government is most freaked out about right now,” Ms. Wheeler writes.

It’s also possible the court order is related to the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. It covers a period of time that began on the day of the bombing and ends in mid-July.

But if that’s the case, why does the court order cast such a wide net? It covers all Verizon business telephone metadata created in the US.

“[H]ow is it possible that all calls to, say, Dominos Pizza in Peoria, Illinois or all calls over a three-month period between two small businesses in Juno, Alaska would be ‘relevant’ to an investigation of events in Boston – even if we assume that the FBI did not know whom it was investigating in the Boston area and did not know whom that unknown person was communicating with?” writes Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, on the Lawfare national-security legal blog.

Mr. Wittes writes that the only explanation he can think of is that there are ways of analyzing big data sets with algorithms that produce lots of interesting things – but only if the data set has all possibly relevant material. That way it’s sure to include any communications by the bombers.

“The trouble is that if that constitutes relevance for purposes of [Patriot Act] Section 215 – or for purposes of grand jury subpoena, for that matter – then isn’t all data relevant to all investigations?” Wittes writes.

That’s the implication here that troubles privacy experts the most. It’s possible that this shows the FBI, via National Security Agency collection and analysis abilities, has begun vast data-mine efforts.

“As such, it would seem to exceed any reasonable presumption of what the consent of the governed would allow,” writes Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, on Secrecy News.

President Obama and first lady Michelle leave after visiting Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, in Arlington, Va. Mrs. Obama threatened to walk out of a Washington fundraiser Tuesday night after a heckler interrupted her speech. (Molly Riley/AP)

Michelle Obama heckled: How'd she handle it? (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.05.13

Michelle Obama threatened to walk out of a Washington fundraiser Tuesday night after a heckler interrupted her speech.

It was a rare moment of unscripted anger from a first lady who has generally avoided direct political confrontation and has approval ratings higher than those of her husband.

“Heckling at fund-raisers is a fairly common practice, but it’s almost always directed at the president, which is why Michelle Obama must have been somewhat taken aback,” writes Adam Martin in New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer.

The incident occurred as Mrs. Obama was speaking at a Democratic National Committee event in a private home in Washington’s posh Kalorama neighborhood. She was already wound up, speaking urgently, even pointedly, about the children at a high school in a tough neighborhood of Chicago that she had recently visited.

“Right now, today, we have an obligation to stand up for those kids,” she said.

Then Ellen Sturtz, an activist from the gay rights group GetEQUAL, began yelling for President Obama to sign an executive order to protect gays and lesbians working for federal contractors from employment discrimination.

Mr. Obama promised to sign such an order as a candidate in 2008, but has yet to do so, pointed out GetEQUAL in a press release following the incident.

Still, the first lady was not pleased about the interruption.

“One of the things I don’t do well is this, do you understand?” Mrs. Obama said.

According to audio recordings of the event, she then threatened to leave if the heckler didn’t stop. The crowd was behind the first lady for the most part, chanting “stay!”

A media pool report quoted Mrs. Obama as saying to Ms. Sturtz, “Listen to me or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”

(This bit got left out of the official White House transcript of the event, though.)

The heckler – who had bought a ticket to the fundraiser and was thus entitled to attend – was then escorted from the room. Mrs. Obama stayed and finished her speech.

What can we tell from this? For one thing, for all her ease on “Ellen” and other shows, Mrs. Obama still has stuff to learn about public speaking.

Anger is much less effective than humor or a sort of rope-a-dope flexibility. Mr. Obama showed this in his May 23 speech on counterterrorism at the National Defense University. He was interrupted by Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin, whom he engaged in a bit of back-and-forth before saying, “This is part of free speech, is you being able to speak but also you listening and me being able to speak.”

He got applause for that. Of course, it was easy for him be relaxed: He was on a secure Defense Department installation.

Mrs. Obama might just have been channeling her inner parent. She sounded a bit like someone speaking to a teenager who’s neglected homework to watch “Arrested Development.” Perhaps this is why Sasha and Malia seem so well behaved.

And she has given some ammunition to critics who consider her a food scold and too nannylike. Some conservatives complain about Mrs. Obama’s push for kids to eat more vegetables and so on as an intrusion into parental prerogatives. Critics were quick to point out that the White House did not include most of Mrs. Obama’s response Tuesday night in its transcript. Coverup, anyone?

Maybe. It’s also possible it wasn’t included because she left the stage during the incident and it wasn’t recorded on the official mike.

Finally, we’ll note that this is not the first time the first lady has encountered audience animosity. She and second lady Jill Biden were booed at a NASCAR race in Florida in November 2011.

Mrs. Obama’s experience was mild compared to what Lady Bird Johnson went through in the fall of 1964 when she campaigned in the South for her husband. LBJ had just signed the Civil Rights Act, and many white Southerners were incensed. In Richmond, Va., Mrs. Johnson was greeted by a banner that read, “Fly Away Lady Bird.”

But she pressed on, giving 47 speeches to a total of half a million people.

“I am aware that there are those who would exploit [the South’s] past troubles to their own advantage," she said on Oct. 9, 1964, in New Orleans. "But I do not believe the majority of the South wants any part of the old bitterness.”

This video image from an Internal Revenue Service video shows an IRS employee portraying Mr. Spock in a scene from a video parodying the TV show 'Star Trek' that was made for a 2010 IRS training and leadership conference. (IRS/AP)

How much did IRS spend filming 'Star Trek' spoof? (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.04.13

IRS staff members produced a spoof “Star Trek” video for an agency conference in Southern California in 2010, according to a just-released Treasury Department audit.

The theme for the IRS Small Business/Self-Employed Division meeting in question was “Leading into the Future,” so agency officials thought it was apropos to write a 6-minute scripted presentation that featured division leaders acting in a “tax-themed parody,” the inspector general audit said. The video was filmed on a mock set of the Starship Enterprise constructed at the agency’s New Carrollton, Md., audio-vision studio.

“Employees purchased the costumes using personal funds,” the IG report concluded.

Look, we’re reporting this as straight as we can, all right? So don’t go making jokes about going boldly where no deduction has gone before, or setting tax tables to “stun.”

The actual video featured a voyage to the planet NoTax, where “chaos rules over order,” according to the script. There’s also exploration of off-planet tax shelters.

No, we’re not making that up.

The Small Business/Self-Employed Division did not break out the cost of making this epic, per se. But the IG figured that it took about 62 hours of staff time, at a total cost of $3,100. The set cost $2,400.

(By way of comparison, the latest installment in the actual movie series, “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” cost about $190 million. But it was longer.)

“No documentation was maintained to track any costs associated with the development of the other production costs, such as script development, makeup, lighting, and videotaping,” according to the IG report.

The division spent a total of about $50,000 on videos for the conference, which paid for the “Star Trek” effort and a 3 minute “SB/SE Shuffle” flick, which featured 15 executives and managers dancing on stage.

This was cheap at the price if you consider how much the IRS spent on speakers for the same meeting: $135,500.

Of this, $17,000 went to a keynote speaker who used painting to demonstrate “his message of unlearning the rules, breaking the boundaries, and freeing the thought process to find creative solutions to challenges,” according to the IRS contract for the appearance.

According to the IG, at his keynote sessions the speaker created six paintings: Albert Einstein (1); Michael Jordan (1); Abraham Lincoln (1); U2 singer Bono (1); and the Statue of Liberty (2).

No Spock? No Captain Kirk? Looks like somebody missed an opportunity for entertainment synergy.

In total the IRS spent $4.1 million on this single 2010 conference, which included luxury suites for some officials and gifts for many of the 2,600 attendees.

First lady Michelle Obama speaks at Savoy Elementary School in Washington, May 24. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Can White House help Democrats campaign this year? Paging Michelle Obama.

By Correspondent / 06.04.13

Her husband’s White House is consumed with handling fallout from the scandal du jour – Benghazi, the IRS, the First Amendment – but Michelle Obama appears more than just untainted, proving anew her mettle on the campaign trail despite the brouhahas polarizing Washington.

Arguably the most popular surrogate for her husband’s 2012 reelection campaign, the first lady is stumping in key 2013 races. On Thursday she is raising money for Terry McAuliffe – the former Democratic National Committee chief running for Virginia governor – at a hotel fundraiser in vote-rich Fairfax County.

"Michelle Obama has been a leader on standing up for women, military families and children, and Terry McAuliffe is committed to continuing that work,” says McAuliffe campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin. “She is one of the most popular figures in America, and we're really excited to have her here in Virginia."

The Virginia race is an off-season election, but the contest is critical. The state – captured twice by President Obama – is purple, and it’s one Democrats hope to convert for the foreseeable future. A heated battle between Mr. McAuliffe and GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli is dominating the airwaves, and both candidates are trying to woo female voters and reach across the aisle to build a winning coalition to succeed Republican incumbent Bob McDonnell.

Paging Michelle Obama. (It’s worth noting that the president has yet to campaign for McAuliffe.)

“The first lady is traditionally a great draw for a big crowd, and she has little of the downside presented by her husband's controversies,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “People assume that the first lady isn't involved in Oval Office skullduggery, and usually this is the correct evaluation. Pat Nixon had no involvement with Watergate, and Hillary Clinton certainly wasn't aware of Monica Lewinsky's services to her husband.”

Meanwhile, last week, the first lady brought in an estimated $600,000 for Rep. Edward J. Markey (D), who is running for the US Senate in Massachusetts against Republican Gabriel Gomez. Obama has also appeared recently at the Democratic National Committee’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Leadership gala in New York City.

Her pitch at these events is that in backing these candidates or issues, voters are helping her husband’s cause. And Republicans – with a national leadership void – don’t really have an equally charismatic foil for her.

At 48 percent, President Obama’s approval rating has slipped below the 50 percent watermark, according to Gallup. By contrast, Gallup’s most recent polling of the public’s view of the first lady showed her with a 65 percent favorable rating.

Tracy Sefl, a Washington-based Democratic consultant, said the first lady “speaks with a combination of accessible language and emotion,” and “audiences find her magnetic.” And at campaign events, of course, she doesn’t have to delve into the weeds of congressional inquiries. The questions or interruptions that have sometimes intruded on the president’s public events don’t pop up when the first lady hits the trail.

“Her calendar is highly strategic, obviously,” Sefl adds. “Democrats recognize that her appearances on behalf of marquee candidates like Terry McAuliffe are all the more valuable during this lighter election cycle year. The spotlight she commands becomes even brighter. She's proven to be a teflon first lady.”

But could the recent appearances reflect something more than a savvy political use of the more popular Obama? In the waning months of her husband’s tenure, Hillary Clinton turned her attention to a US Senate bid in New York, so could this be an early sign of how formidable a candidate Michelle Obama might be?

Or has the Princeton and Harvard Law grad effectively tired of the Washington scene?

That storyline remains unwritten for now.

Professor Sabato, for his part, thinks the first lady – despite her proven campaign skills – will probably move onto other things.

“I'd be willing to bet Michelle Obama won't run for office,” he says. “While she's clearly enjoying the platform her current unofficial office brings, she wouldn't have chosen politics as the family profession. Hillary Clinton is the exception that proves the rule about first ladies. Unlike Hillary, the rest have been quite happy to move back into semi-private life once the White House tour of duty is over.”

Michelle Obama will appear Thursday for McAuliffe at the Sheraton in Tysons Corner. Tickets range from $100 to $750; several hundred supporters are expected.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seen here in 2012, announced Tuesday that New Jersey would hold a special election on Oct. 16 to fill its vacant US Senate seat. (Mel Evans/AP/File)

Chris Christie says date for special election isn’t political. Really? (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.04.13

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced Tuesday that his state will hold a special election Oct. 16 for its vacant Senate seat, following the death Monday of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D). Party primaries will be held on Aug. 13.

The timing issue had become fraught, given the politics involved. Lest anyone forget, Governor Christie is a Republican in a blue state – and running for reelection this November and probably for president in 2016. As governor, he has the right to name the date for the special election; his options included Election Day 2013 (Nov. 5), Election Day in November 2014, or another date of his choosing.

At his press conference Tuesday, Christie said that he believes New Jersey should have an elected senator “as soon as possible.” So that eliminated 2014.

Efficiency and fiscal prudence might have pointed to Nov. 5, 2013, when voters are already going to the polls for the gubernatorial, state legislature, and other races. But Christie apparently felt that wasn’t soon enough, and opted for a date three weeks earlier.

Or perhaps Christie was worried that the likelihood of having Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) on the ballot for Senate on Nov. 5 would have driven up Democratic turnout and jeopardized his (Christie’s) reelection?

Christie maintained that his decision on timing was not political. But the cost of having a special election just three weeks earlier than the regularly scheduled election will be dear, running into the millions of dollars.

“The state will be responsible for all the costs of this election,” Christie said.

In other words, taxpayers will pick up the bill. Democrats are sure to complain. But Republicans also have cause for unhappiness. Christie says he will appoint a temporary replacement for Senator Lautenberg next week – and he is likely to name a Republican. That Republican could have held the seat until November 2014, making it that much harder for President Obama to get anything through the Senate.

Instead, the temporary senator will be in place only a few months, albeit crucial ones. Whom he will pick is still the parlor game du jour in politics. Most mentioned are former Gov. Tom Kean, his son Tom Kean Jr., state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

Fox News Channel commentator Geraldo Rivera speaks on the 'Fox & Friends' television program in New York, in 2010. (Richard Drew/AP)

Will Chris Christie go big, tap Geraldo Rivera for Senate? (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.04.13

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) needs to pick a replacement for the Garden State’s Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday. As many pundits note, this is a task that’s fraught with political peril for Governor Christie: Pick someone deemed too liberal by conservatives, and he damages his presidential chances. Pick someone deemed too conservative by Democrats, and he damages his standing in his own blue-tinged state. What’s a shrewd, popular governor to do?

Two words: Geraldo Rivera. Or as the mustachioed news crusader would probably say it himself, Geraldo! Rivera!

Look, he lives in New Jersey, and he’s available. In January, Mr. Rivera said he was thinking of running as a Republican in 2014 for Senator Lautenberg’s seat. Or, to put it in Geraldo-speak, he was “truly contemplating” a Senate bid.

He’s laid out his political positions, and they’re pretty Christie-esque. He’s an economic conservative; tough on crime (he wants New York’s stop-and-frisk policing style in New Jersey); and a registered Republican. He’s also in favor of abortion rights and gay marriage, and he voted for President Obama in 2012.

Would that voting-for-Obama thing be tough for Christie to take? It’s one thing to praise the president for his aid to the state just before a hotly contested election, giving him a big electoral boost, as Christie did, and another thing to actually pull a lever for the guy in the privacy of the voting booth. Or not – put it that way, and they sound at least equal.

In sum, Rivera's positions are liberal enough to appeal to New Jersey, and he’s got a Harley and a deep voice and waves the flag, so maybe conservatives won’t notice he’s not really one of them. Mischief managed!

Rivera said on his radio show Monday that he’d “definitely take the call” if Christie approached him about the seat. But he added that he thinks that’s a very, very long shot.

“I haven’t been vetted. I’ve only kind of toyed with the idea of running,” he said.

He concluded that he thought Christie would pick somebody “important” instead of him.

“I can’t imagine he will pick me,” Rivera said.

Geraldo, buck up! Was it over when you opened Al Capone’s safe and it was empty? Was it over when the US military kicked you out of Iraq in 2003? Was it over when you said Trayvon Martin would not have been attacked if he had not been wearing a hoodie?

It wasn’t. So close your eyes and dream of riding your Harley up the steps of the Capitol and into the Senate chamber for your swearing-in. It might not be great politics, but it would be fabulous TV.  

US Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a special naturalization ceremony at the Department of Justice in Washington last month. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Does someone at White House want Eric Holder gone? (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.03.13

Is somebody at the White House trying to push Attorney General Eric Holder out? As in, out of his job, into the private sector?

That’s one reading of a Sunday New York Times story that’s still got people in D.C. buzzing.

First off, we’ll say that no one currently in the administration is quoted in the piece as saying anything like “Holder should quit to save us grief.” But an unnamed “Democratic former official” does say that, pretty much.

“The White House is apoplectic about him, and has been for a long time,” says this anonymous source of Mr. Holder.

One of the administration’s main complaints about the attorney general is that he “does not manage or foresee problems,” adds this source.

This is hearsay, right? The Times reporter hasn’t actually heard anybody in the White House express those views – only a secondary source who claims to have heard them expressed. That weakens the case, as any lawyer will tell you.

But anonymous carping through the media is a time-honored Washington way of easing out officials who have become a liability. It’s supposed to give said official a hint without anyone directly telling them. That way, there’s deniability. The White House can say the person is stepping down of their own accord.

And Holder has definitely been producing some bad headlines for the Obama team. In particular, many Republicans and some Democrats charge that Holder may have committed perjury by telling Congress under oath that he’d never heard of any “potential prosecution” of reporters under the Espionage Act, when he’d signed off on a Justice Department warrant for the communications records of Fox News reporter James Rosen that named the journalist as an espionage co-conspirator.

“I think he’s taken actions that demand explanation,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona on CBS's “Face the Nation.”

Lots of Democrats say all this talk is blowing things way out of proportion. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland pointed out over the weekend that Mr. Rosen hasn’t been prosecuted. The real target of the warrant was Rosen’s source in the government, said Representative Van Hollen.

“It is often the practice in cases where you have investigations that you target somebody for the purpose of gathering information with never having any intention of prosecuting them,” Van Hollen said on “Fox News Sunday.”

President Obama still has Holder’s back, say administration officials for the record. Firing him now, or pushing him out, would be just giving in to partisan critics, in this view. And the AG has powerful personal defenders in the West Wing, including special assistant to the president Valerie Jarrett.

But Holder’s longtime critics prefer to see the New York Times story as the precursor to an internal campaign to ease Holder out.

“Assuming this is a smoke signal from the White House, it indicates that Barack Obama won’t ask Holder to leave.... However, it’s a big hint that the West Wing won’t be too engaged in defending him and would like to see him leave on his own,” writes Ed Morrissey on the conservative Hot Air! website. “It’s not quite a shove, at least not yet, but it’s certainly a nudge.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California holds up a document as he speaks to IRS official Lois Lerner on Capitol Hill in Washington last month. He said on Sunday that Lerner's refusal to answer questions at the hearing suggested that the IRS scandal 'was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters.' (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Smoking gun in IRS scandal? Rep. Darrell Issa says he's close. (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.02.13

For all intents and purposes, the only politically relevant fact in the IRS scandal is the still-unanswered question of who, ultimately, decided to harangue tea party groups with reams of extra paperwork during the 2012 election season.

The Obama administration has suggested that a few "rogue agents" in one Cincinnati office were to blame. And the evidence, so far, has appeared to at least partly support that claim. Media reports have painted a picture of an office overwhelmed by the task of sorting through which tax-exempt groups were actually playing according to the arcane rules of US tax law and which were not. Disproportionately, it seems, conservative groups got the runaround. 

Yet what has been lacking from the Republican viewpoint is — if not a smoking gun, precisely — then at least a steaming teacup. Where was the evidence that "rogue agents" were, in fact, dutiful subordinates, carrying out a clear plan of political recrimination that had its origins all the way back in Washington?

On Sunday, the House Republican tasked with carrying out that chamber's investigations offered his strongest claim yet that the IRS scandal was part of a broader Obama administration conspiracy.

"As late as last week, the administration's still trying to say there's a few rogue agents in Cincinnati, when in fact the indication is they were directly being ordered from Washington," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California on CNN's "State of the Union."

His evidence? Partial transcripts of the closed-door testimony to Congress of IRS employees in the Cincinnati office.

According to one transcript, an employee was asked if the scandal could be the work of a few local rogue agents. "It's impossible," the employee said. "As an agent we are controlled by many, many people. We have to submit many, many reports. So the chance of two agents being rogue and doing things like that could never happen."

The interrogator then asked: "With respect to the particular scrutiny that was given to tea party applications, those directions emanated from Washington, is that right?"

"I believe so," the IRS employee said.

Yet Issa and fellow Republicans were careful not to go too far Sunday. Scandals are Washington's political potboilers, after all, and the authors try to leave every Sunday morning chapter on a cliffhanger.

When Candy Crowley, the host of "State of the Union," pushed Representative Issa for a clearer link — evidence of a direct order from Washington — he said his committee was following a paper trial to try to establish facts, but the White House had not yet supplied subpoenaed documents.

It is part of an established Washington tradition. Congressional investigators from one party ask presidents for reams of documents in the name of transparency, presidents of the other party tell Congress to buzz off, saying Congress is on a political witch hunt, and the scandal survives for another week.

In the meantime, Issa was careful not to specifically accuse anyone of anything — while making it clear that he doesn't trust the Obama administration.

He cited Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS division on tax-exempt organizations, who last month refused to answer questions posed by Issa's committee, invoking her constitutional right not to incriminate herself.

"The reason that Lois Lerner tried to take the fifth is not because there is a rogue in Cincinnati, it's because this is a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters and we're getting to proving it," he added.

At one point, he even called White House spokesman Jay Carney a "paid liar."

"My gut tells me that too many people knew that this wrongdoing was going on before the election," he said. "And at least by some sort of convenient benign neglect, allowed it to go on through the election — allowed these groups, these conservative groups, these, if you will, not friends of the president, to be disenfranchised through an election."

The idea that the Obama administration has played the part of an enabler, allowing a vindictive partisan culture to flourish in the American bureaucracy, was echoed by other Republicans Sunday morning.

"The culture of the president calling tea party groups terrorists and tea-baggers, and that entire culture has been cultivated by the president and his people, and everyone has been following," said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus on "Fox News Sunday."

Added Republican strategist Karl Rove on ABC's "This Week": "People sitting in Cincinnati, Laguna Niguel, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., listen to people like Sen. Max Baucus, Sen. Chuck Schumer, President Obama. When President Obama goes out in 2010 and calls these groups ‘a threat to democracy,’ he’s blowing a dog whistle.”

Rove also said further investigation would reveal further discrimination.

“We’re going to find that the IRS targeted conservative political groups, not liberal groups, and that they targeted specific individuals,” he said.

Democratic strategist David Plouffe, also on "This Week," rebutted the charges.

“There’s been no suggestion — the [IRS] inspector general said there was no politics involved in this,” he said. “This was not an effort driven by the White House. It would be the dumbest political effort of all time.”

At least on that point, perhaps, both sides can agree.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in Washington, April 2. Clinton is still the 2016 frontrunner, new poll shows. (Cliff Owen/AP/File)

Hillary Clinton approval plummets. Benghazi? (+video)

By Staff writer / 05.31.13

Hillary Rodham Clinton is still the 2016 frontrunner, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. The newly ex-secretary of State leads Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky by eight points, 49 to 41 percent, in survey results. She’s ahead of former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush by 48 to 40 percent.

Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden, another possible Democratic contender in 2016, trails possible Republican opponents in the Quinnipiac results. He’s behind Senator Paul by four points, 39 to 43 percent. He lags Mr. Bush by 38 to 44 percent.

But the Quinnipiac numbers aren’t all green lights and roses for Mrs. Clinton. They show a big drop in her favorability rating from previous surveys. Back in February, Quinnipiac had her at an all-time favorability high. Sixty-one percent of respondents had a positive opinion of her, with only 34 percent judging her unfavorably. The latest poll shows a drop of nine points, with a positive/negative split of 52 to 40 percent.

It’s possible that her popularity has been hurt by Republican complaints that the Obama administration did not do enough to protect US diplomats in Libya and subsequently misled the public about the nature of the fatal attack on a US building in Benghazi.

“The drop in her favorability is substantial among men, Republicans and independent voters. One reason for her drop may be that 48 percent of voters blame her either a little or a lot for the death of the American ambassador in Benghazi,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a statement.

It’s important to remember that this just one poll, however. And other surveys show a slightly different picture. A Pew survey from earlier this month showed that the public as a whole has paid little attention to the congressional hearings on Benghazi.

“Fewer than half (44%) of Americans say they are following the hearings very or fairly closely, virtually unchanged from late January when Hillary Clinton testified,” concludes a Pew overview of that survey.

And Clinton’s favorability ratings were still quite high in April, according to Gallup data. Gallup had her at a 64 to 31 percent favorable/unfavorable split, giving her much better numbers than her then-boss, President Obama.

An alternative explanation for her poorer showing in the Quinnipiac poll is partisanship. The numbers show that some self-identified Republicans who had backed Clinton are drifting home to candidates of their own party, note Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Brooke Brower on NBC’s First Read blog.

The NBC trio notes that Clinton has also lost some support among independents. But with women voters she leads both Paul and Bush by some 20 percentage points, while trailing among male voters by single digits.

“If she runs and if that gender gap persists, she’d be VERY DIFFICULT to beat,” according to First Read.

Then there’s this final caveat: Don’t take all these numbers too seriously. It’s early yet, so early that 2016 presidential polls may be more entertainment than useful indictors.

At this point in the cycle, polls in 2008 also showed Hillary Clinton the presidential leader, points out University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. In 2000, they pointed to Al Gore. In 1988, Teddy Kennedy or Gary Hart seemed the likely victor.

“Have a good laugh reading polls on ’16 Prez. AT THIS TIME in cycle polls got every open contest wrong 1960-08,” Sabato tweeted on Thursday.

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