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Benghazi, IRS, AP: A guide to the 3 storms confronting the White House

The Obama administration, four short months into its second term, finds itself beset by three political storms.

Republicans in Congress, some Democrats and the press are pelting the White House with questions about the raid on an American post in Libya, the conduct of the Internal Revenue Service and the seizure of phone records from The Associated Press.

Taken together, the three have consumed the week in Washington. Here’s a quick guide.

BENGHAZI

The basics: Four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, were killed in a raid on a diplomatic post in the city of Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. The State Department ultimately determined that the raid was a series of terrorist attacks.

Republicans have made an array of accusations, including that the administration failed to send the military to help, waited too long to consistently describe the raid as a terror attack, and extensively edited talking points for media appearances.

The White House response: President Barack Obama, exasperated, dismissed the Republican furor over the talking points earlier this week as a politically motivated “sideshow.”

The administration has also said that sending the military was logistically impossible and would have left other American interests undefended. Obama said within hours of the raid that “acts of terror” would not be tolerated. On Thursday, he pledged increased security for diplomatic posts.

Accused of changing its public stance on the raid because of political reasons — the presidential election was less than two weeks away — the administration released 100 pages of emails and other documents Wednesday shedding light on how the talking points were changed.

The stakes: The political stakes are increasingly focused on Hillary Clinton’s potential run for the presidency in 2016. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and himself a possible candidate, accused Clinton of “dereliction of duty” at a speech in Iowa over the weekend.

American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s political action committee, released an ad draping Clinton in dark shadows and grainy black-and-white photos and accusing her of a cover-up. The ad ends with an invitation to donate to American Crossroads.

What’s next: More questions from Republicans, despite the administration’s insistence that there is little if anything left to explain.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has accused the administration of lying and believing itself to be above the law, wants to interview former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, one of the leaders of the review board.

 

 

 

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THE IRS

The basics: Employees of the Internal Revenue Service singled out Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations for special scrutiny in reviewing applications for tax exemption.

Republicans want to know whether anyone in the administration knew about it — to date there is no evidence that they did — and have suggested the government was punishing political enemies.

The White House stance: Obama on Wednesday ousted the acting head of the IRS, Steven Miller, and said: “Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I’m angry about it.”

The president acted after a Treasury Department investigation faulted the IRS for using “inappropriate criteria” in picking which organizations to scrutinize. The report also said that “ineffective management” allowed the criteria to stay in place.

Asked Thursday whether he supported the appointment of a special prosecutor, Obama said he believed working with Congress to investigate would be sufficient.

The stakes: Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed. Republicans appear to be coalescing around an insistence that it shows a pattern of intimidation by the administration.

“The unifying themes of this town are an arrogance and view of the machinery of government to be a tool of partisanship,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and a Tea Party favorite, said Thursday.

Besides demanding hearings, they are likely to use that argument in the 2014 midterm elections. In addition, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that the IRS ordeal could hurt the push for immigration reform in Congress.

“We’ve already faced tremendous suspicion about the federal government’s ability or willingness to enforce the law,” Rubio said.

What’s next: Attorney General Eric Holder has pledged a nationwide investigation. Federal prosecutors are looking at potential violations of law, including civil rights statutes and a federal law that restricts political activities by federal employees.

There are at least three congressional hearings scheduled, beginning with the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday.

 

 

 

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AP PHONE RECORDS

The basics: The Justice Department secretly seized two months of records from more than 20 telephone lines used by reporters and editors for The Associated Press last year.

The seizure was apparently connected to a federal investigation into who leaked classified information about a foiled terror plot in Yemen that the AP reported on in May 2012. The AP has angrily objected and demanded further explanation.

The White House stance: The deputy attorney general who is overseeing the investigation insisted in a letter to the AP that the seizure was limited in scope and that the content of calls was not monitored.

Holder, who has recused himself from the investigation, said Tuesday that the leak “put the American people at risk” and was among the most serious he has seen in 37 years as a prosecutor.

The stakes: Media organizations have said that the seizure will intimidate whistle-blowers. As in the IRS furor, Republicans are seeking to portray an administration bent on overreaching. Democrats have joined the criticism, too.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said Wednesday that the Justice Department’s steps were “a blatant violation of privacy, and directly interfere with the constitutionally protected rights of the press to do its job free from government intrusion or direction.”

What’s next: Under fire, the Obama administration is pushing to revive legislation that would enhance protections for journalists when they refuse to name confidential sources.

A White House official called Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to ask him to reintroduce the legislation, known as a media shield law. Schumer said that the bill at least would have ensured a fairer process in the AP leak.

But Obama stressed Thursday that he makes no apology for being concerned about leaks that jeopardize American missions.

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