The latest twist in the conservative effort to tie the IRS tax-exempt targeting scandal to the president is to focus on public visitor records released by the White House, in which former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman's name appears 157 times between 2009 and 2012. Unfortunately, few of those pushing this line have bothered to read more than the topline of that public information. Bill O'Reilly on Thursday called them the "smoking gun" and demanded of Shulman, "You must explain under oath what you were doing at the White House on 157 separate occasions." His statement built on a Daily Caller story, "IRS's Shulman had more public White House visits than any Cabinet member." An Investors Business Daily story and slew of blog items repeated the charges.
"The alibi the White House has wedded itself to is that it had to work closely with the IRS to implement ObamaCare," the Investor's Business Daily has written -- as if that were not true.
And yet the public meeting schedules available for review to any media outlet show that very thing: Shulman was cleared primarily to meet with administration staffers involved in implementation of the health-care reform bill. He was cleared 40 times to meet with Obama's director of the Office of Health Reform, and a further 80 times for the biweekly health reform deputies meetings and others set up by aides involved with the health-care law implementation efforts. That's 76 percent of his planned White House visits just there, before you even add in all the meetings with Office of Management and Budget personnel also involved in health reform.
Complicating the picture is the fact that just because a meeting was scheduled and Shulman was cleared to attend it does not mean that he actually went. Routine events like the biweekly health-care deputies meeting would have had a standing list of people cleared to attend, people whose White House appointments would have been logged and forwarded to the check-in gate. But there is no time of arrival information in the records to confirm that Shulman actually signed in and went to these standing meetings.
Indeed, of the 157 events Shulman was cleared to attend, White House records only provide time of arrival information -- confirming that he actually went to them -- for 11 events over the 2009-2012 period, and time of departure information for only six appointments. According to the White House records, Shulman signed in twice in 2009, five times in 2010, twice in 2011, and twice in 2012. That does not mean that he did not go to other meetings, only that the White House records do not show he went to the 157 meetings he was granted Secret Service clearance to attend.
Also, at least one event Shulman says he attended is not part of the visitor's access records. From a Ways and Means Committee IRS hearing, as reported by the Daily Caller:
"What would be some of the reasons you might be at the White House?" Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly asked Shulman during a congressional hearing last week.
"Um, the Easter Egg Roll with my kids," Shulman replied. "Questions about the administrability of tax policy they were thinking of; our budget; us helping the Department of Education streamline application processes for financial aid."
But there is no record that Shulman attended a White House Easter Egg Roll under Obama, most likely because large events organized by the East Wing, like that one, don't always show up in the visitor's access records. Neither do visits by staffers, journalists covering large events, or people who enter the White House grounds in their pre-cleared cars, like Cabinet members, who do not wait for badge swipes at the gate with the policymaking hoi polloi.
The Daily Caller breathlessly reported: "An analysis by The Daily Caller of the White House's public 'visitor access records' showed that every current and former member of President Obama's Cabinet would have had to rack up at least 60 more public visits to the president's home to catch up with 'Douglas Shulman'" before conceding by the end of the article, "it is probable that the vast majority of visits by major Cabinet members do not end up in the public record." Indeed.
The real problem with combing through the White House visitor logs is that they were a system designed for Secret Service clearance and White House security, not as comprehensive means of documenting every visitor to the White House, high to low. They miss the top end and some of the social end of people visiting the White House -- people who are cleared through separate processes designed to protect presidential security other than getting swiped in at the front gate for an appointment.
When Obama took office, as part of his transparency initiative, these Secret Service swipe and appointment records were made public. In retrospect, that was both a bold move and a confusing one, as the records have created an impression of total transparency the quality of the data is not able to support.
The system being used is clearly an old one; it still records visits to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, renamed in that president's honor in 2002, as visits to the Old Executive Office Building, for example. (The Center for Public Integrity has examined the holes in the visitor logs in some detail, if you want to read about how patchy they really are. Their key finding for the purposes of this discussion: "The logs include names of people cleared by the Secret Service for White House entry who never showed up. The Center analysis found more than 200,000 visits with no time of arrival, an indication the person didn't enter the White House though there is no way to know for certain.")
On Thursday, Andrew Sullivan wrote: "I'd be grateful for reader scrutiny of this data -- simply because I do not trust the source, and there may be context I'm missing. But if the Caller is right that in the Bush years, 'Shulman's predecessor Mark Everson only visited the White House once during four years of service in the George W. Bush administration,' we need an explanation -- and fast."
So here is some more context (in addition to what Sullivan's readers later provided him): There is no Bush Administration public-records data about who went to the White House. As incomplete as it is, the Obama White House data is more public information than we have about any other administration, or the visits of any other IRS commissioner.