STORM clouds were still swirling over the White House last night despite the departure of the head of the US tax collection agency over a scandal involving the unfair targeting of conservative groups.
Steven Miller, the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), tendered his resignation after President Barack Obama attacked the agency’s conduct as “inexcusable” when it singled out organisations with right-wing leanings for extra scrutiny.
His exit was seen as a further attempt by Mr Obama to distance himself from the burgeoning controversy, which comes in the same week as his administration was accused of the mass pursuit of journalists in an attempt to stifle criticism.
Senior Republicans said the move backfired because his colleagues say Mr Miller was soon to be leaving the IRS anyway, something the president omitted to mention when he announced the commissioner’s departure during a short but defiant televised briefing late on Wednesday. Calling Mr Miller “the perfect scapegoat”, former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann blasted Mr Obama for deflecting responsibility for the actions of a government agency.
“This is far worse than Watergate,” she said at a press conference hosted yesterday by the Republican-affiliated Tea Party.
“These are direct actions taken against American citizens who sought to exercise their free speech rights under the first amendment.”
Rand Paul, a Kentucky senator, went further. “Someone needs to be held responsible, someone needs to be imprisoned, someone needs to be prosecuted,” he said.
US Republicans investigating the Internal Revenue Service want to question five employees about the tax agency’s targeting of the Tea Party and other conservative groups, an effort that a key legisalator said was part of a fact-finding mission.
“It appears that a number of IRS employees played key roles in carrying out the improper scrutiny,” Republican representative Darrell Issa, head of the oversight and government reform committee in the US House of Representatives, said in a letter, to the IRS requesting interviews with the employees.
The IRS, which did not respond to a request for comment on Mr Issa’s letter, has not released the names of employees who were involved in an effort launched in 2010 in Cincinnati to target Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny as they sought tax- exempt status.
Mr Obama has been on the defensive all week over the IRS scandal and other controversies, including a widespread but secret seizure by the Department of Justice of the phone records of journalists from the Associated Press news agency during an inquiry into the leak of classified information.
Together with fierce criticism for the president over allegations that senior government figures lied about the circumstances of last September’s terrorist attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, events have conspired to produce “the perfect storm” according to the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
He said: “Big and bad things can start from very small things. Little by little, the press spokesman, the president, other people in the administration are saying things that are contradictory and they’re confusing people. The reservoir of trust has been drained.”