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Obama Acts To Control 2 Big Controversies


On a Thursday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. There are some weeks when a White House controls the agenda, and there are weeks like this one, when the White House is forced largely to react. President Obama has been juggling multiple controversies, and last night his White House tried to take two of them head-on.

The administration released 100 pages of email traffic related to the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last September. And just an hour later, President Obama announced that the acting commissioner of the IRS is resigning over reports saying the service gave special scrutiny to conservative groups. NPR's Ari Shapiro was at the White House watching all of this unfold, and he joins us. Ari, good morning.


GREENE: So, several issues to cover, here. Let's start with these emails about the attack in Benghazi, Libya. What do they say?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, these are emails that Congress saw months ago, but were not allowed to keep copies of. They show internal deliberations about those now-infamous talking points, characterizing the attacks on the consulate as spontaneous. The White House released these pages to show that the mistakes in those talking points basically came from the intelligence community, rather than the White House.

And in a background briefing with reporters and several senior administration officials, reporters were walked through every twist and turn of the evolution in these talking points as officials explained that the changes had less to do with seeking political cover and more to do, as they said, with just sort of incomplete information in the fog of war.

GREENE: The charge from Republicans, of course, that these changes were taking place for some political cover for the president, who was in his reelection campaign.

SHAPIRO: Exactly.

GREENE: Well, I mean, this has been going on for so long, Ari. Why release these emails now?

SHAPIRO: Well, according to White House spokesman Eric Schultz, they released these documents because, as he put it: In recent days these emails have been selectively and inaccurately read out to the media. We've seen that sort of drip, drip, drip over the last couple of weeks. Schultz said they released the emails to make clear what is and is not in them, and he expressed the White House hope that the debate over Benghazi can now shift from the talking points to ensuring the safety of U.S. diplomats overseas.

Of course, given the nature of two-party government, that may not be especially likely.

GREENE: Yeah, it doesn't sound like this debate is going anywhere.

SHAPIRO: I don't think so.

GREENE: So you were there last night. The White House has the background briefing that you mentioned with reporters. And then President Obama comes out and addresses a totally separate controversy involving the IRS scrutinizing these Tea Party groups who had sought tax-exempt status.

SHAPIRO: Yes, and the contrast with the Benghazi story could not be greater. On the IRS story, the White House acted relatively quickly, decisively and in harmony with members of Congress. The president met with Treasury Department leaders at the White House in the afternoon. He then stepped in front of cameras in the East Room. He announced that the acting IRS commissioner, as you've said, is stepping down, and he called the IRS's behavior inexcusable. Here's what he said.


SHAPIRO: He promised to work with congressional investigators looking into this matter, though he also urged them to handle this issue, as he put it, in a way that does not smack of politics or partisan agendas.

GREENE: Okay. The President's saying what happened to the IRS inexcusable. The - you know, White House defending what took place dealing with Benghazi. I mean, what's the overall damage-control strategy, here?

SHAPIRO: You know, David, there was actually a third way in which they did damage control, which was after the administration came under fire for Justice Department seizure of Associated Press records...

GREENE: Yeah, that other issue.

SHAPIRO: ...yesterday the White House said it supports - right, yet a third controversy. The White House is in favor of a federal reporter shield bill that Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York now plans to reintroduce. So in all three of these cases, you see the White House trying to take charge of the narrative, but in very different ways. On the Benghazi story, they're trying to prove that it is, as President Obama described it, a sideshow.

On the IRS, the President is trying to show anger, solidarity with the outrage he says the American people appropriately feel. Broadly, the White House is trying to show presidential leadership and show that the guy's in charge, not just being buffeted by the crosswinds of news.

GREENE: And Ari, tell me this. President Obama talks a lot about government, saying Americans should trust it. I mean, do these events make this case more difficult to make?

SHAPIRO: Absolutely. I asked that question of spokesman Jay Carney yesterday. He said, look, the government's a huge organization, where people will occasionally mess up. The President's job is to make the standards clear and publically hold people accountable when they go off the rails. That's what you heard him do last night when he said he's going to everything possible to prevent something like the IRS controversy from happening again.

But certainly, this does not make it easier for President Obama to convince people to trust their government.

GREENE: All right. NPR White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro. Thanks a lot, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.