The biggest "accomplishment" of the Obama presidency, in terms of increasing long-term danger to the world and the threat to Israel, was surely the Iran deal. But the biggest pure scandal was the weaponization of the IRS against political opponents.
If there is one governmental institution that must be entirely neutral politically and perceived as such it is the IRS. American voluntary tax compliance is the envy of the world. That will not long continue were the IRS to be seen as partisan.
As a useful reminder of the "viewpoint bias" of the IRS during the Obama years, the Department of Justice (DOJ) signed a Settlement Consent Order last week with "Z STREET," an organization founded to educate Americans about the Middle East and Israel's defense against terror. The government admitted that the IRS during the Obama administration had discriminated against groups seeking tax exempt status on constitutionally impermissible grounds. Tax exempt status, said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Zuckerman at the signing, should not be determined by an organization's "policy positions or the name chosen to express those positions."
That Order ended seven years of litigation that the IRS fought at every turn, despite repeated rebuffs and even ridicule from the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C. At one point, Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Merrick Garland told the IRS attorney that the IRS's position was tantamount to suggesting the IRS could discriminate against all applications for tax exempt status by black or Jewish groups for up to 270 days.
Among the stipulated facts in the Consent Order was that Z STREET's attorney was told early on in the process of seeking tax exempt status that its application would be sent to a special office in D.C. because it was "connected to Israel," for a determination as to whether the viewpoints advocated were contrary to those of the Obama administration.
Later in the process, the IRS offered the necessity of determining whether Z STREET might be funding terrorism, due to the high rates of terrorism in the Middle East, as a justification for delay. Beginning in August 2010, the IRS began employing a "Be on the Lookout" (BOLO) category for groups involved in possible "occupied territory advocacy." Three Jewish groups seeking tax exempt status at that time were asked to explain their "religious beliefs about the Land of Israel."
Z STREET finally received its tax exempt status after nearly seven years – three to nine months is average. Not once in that time was it asked a single question about the recipients of its funding and support.
Discrimination against right-wing Jewish advocacy groups was part of a much larger pattern of IRS viewpoint discrimination during the Obama presidency. TIGTA (Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration) issued two reports sharply critical of the IRS for discriminating between applicants for tax exempt status over the period Z STREET's suit was pending. Those reports identified a special IRS office in Washington D.C. dealing with the applications of such groups.
Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of tax exempt organizations, admitted in May 2013, in response to a planted question at an ABA conference, that the IRS had improperly discriminated against Tea Party groups from near the beginning of the Obama presidency in 2009 for at least two years. Initially, an attempt was made to blame two rogue agents in the Cincinnati office, but the TIGTA report made short work of that.
Lerner's admission triggered congressional investigations and requests for documents. In response to the latter, Lerner claimed that her hard drive had crashed and she had lost all her emails over the relevant two year period. Subsequently, six more IRS officials whose emails were sought claimed to have had the same mysterious hard drive problems.
Yet the report of the IRS's own IT computer specialists described Lerner's hard drive as only "scratched," and included a recommendation that it be sent to experts for the recovery of the emails. That was never done, and the hard drive was destroyed.
A year after the alleged crash of Lerner's hard drive, the IRS ordered the destruction of her Blackberry, from which most of her emails could have been recovered, but were not.
The "someone ate my hard drive" excuse, in any event, was ridiculous, as such records would have been stored on the server and by various backup services. In response to that problem with its story, the IRS subsequently claimed that it only retained backup files for six months due to limited storage facilities. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen argued that the IRS's $1.8 billion dollar IT budget was inadequate to provide storage space for a longer period of time.
That story did not pass the spell test, and not only because federal archiving requirements require the IRS to preserve records. Former IRS IT personnel denied that there was any shortage of storage space that would require the erasure of storage tapes after six months.
Finally, Department of Justice attorneys in the course of defending a suit by Judicial Watch, told the court in August 2014 that all the sought after emails were saved after all, but that it would be too onerous to search for all of Lerner's.
When she testified before Congress, Lerner refused to answer questions, citing her Fifty Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
In any event, Lerner's emails were hardly needed to establish the blatant discrimination against conservative groups. Over the two year period in question, 107 conservative groups applying for tax exempt status were subjected to special scrutiny, and of those only 40% were approved. Seven liberal groups received the same level of scrutiny, and all were approved.
Denial of tax exempt status was not the only way in which the IRS intimidated political opponents of the administration. President Obama once "joked" that he would "audit my enemies," and apparently many in the federal government did not realize he was joking. The Obama campaign 2012 website featured eight large Romney donors who were described as "wealthy individuals" with "less than reputable records."
One of those thus targeted was Frank Vandersloot. He had never been previously subjected to a governmental audit. In the four months after his name was posted on the Obama campaign website, he received three audit notices: one from the IRS for his individual returns, another for one of his businesses, and one from the Department of Labor concerning the guest workers at his Idaho ranch. None of the audits resulted in fines, but VAndersloot was out $80,000 in legal fees.
THE SAME PATTERN of highly politicized bureaucracies existed at the Department of Justice and FBI during the Obama years. Sometimes there was an overlap between DOJ and the IRS. In response to the urging of Senator Carl Lewin (D.Michigan) to clamp down on political advocacy groups, the IRS sent 1.1 million pages of materials from the returns of 501 (c) (4) organizations to the DOJ for review of possible violations of the requirements for the (c) (4) exemption.
The Department of Justice's Inspector-General Michael Horowitz has been investigating the actions of senior DOJ and FBI personnel in the months leading up to the 2016 elections. And that investigation has already resulted in numerous senior officials being fired or downgraded. Most prominently, the FBI's associate director Andrew McCabe stepped down just short of retirement.
McCabe headed the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton's private server, despite the fact that his wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, received hundreds of thousands of dollars of support from a political action committee closely associated with Clinton insider Gov. Terry McAuliffe in her race for the Virginia state Senate.
According to the Washington Post, the Inspector-General suspects that McCabe delayed for three weeks the examination of the Hillary emails found on the computer of Andrew Weiner, husband of her top aide Huma Abedin. Ironically, that action hurt Clinton. News of the emails and FBI Director James Comey's announcement that the investigation was being reopened came just a few days before the election. Had that announcement come three weeks earlier voters would have had time to digest Comey's subsequent announcement that he was closing the investigation again.
It was in McCabe's office that the meeting took place at which senior FBI officials discussed the need for an "insurance policy" against a Trump presidency. Another of those present was Peter Strzok, the senior investigator in the Clinton probe.
Among those interviewed by Strzok were Clinton's closest aides, Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills. Both lied to him about their knowledge of Clinton's private server. Neither were ever charged for those lies.
Meanwhile, James Baker, the FBI General Counsel, was reassigned and demoted by James Comey's successor Christopher Wray for leaking information about the Trump-Russian investigation to journalists.
And finally, the wife of FBI Assistant Director Bruce Ohr worked at GPS Fusion on the Trump dossier commissioned by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Even after the principal author of the dossier, Christopher Steele, was terminated by the FBI for divulging to the press his role as an FBI informant. Ohr continued to meet with him and to relay information to the FBI provided by his wife. He too has been demoted.
The intrusion of partisan politics into the deliberations and actions of the IRS and the FBI, two institutions that must remain above politics, has damaged the faith of Americans in both. The senior officials involved deserve the blame for the diminished public respect for these vital institutions, not the congressional investigators seeking to hold them to account. Without such an accounting trust cannot be restored.