The Fake Story About the IRS Commissioner and the White House

White House records show Douglas Shulman signed in for 11 visits, not 157, between 2009 and 2012.
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This building is technically the White House, too. It's called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (Whitehouse.gov)

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.

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 8.26.49 AM.png 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.

There is also the question about what people mean when they say the White House.

The lay reader understands the White House to be the big white mansion with the columns and the Oval Office and the West Wing and the presidential family living in residence. The Daily Caller talked about visits to "the president's home." But the White House visitors' records cover the entire White House complex -- the big famous white building, along with the freestanding Eisenhower Executive Office Building inside the gated compound and the New Executive Office Building, which is up 17th Street and outside the White House gates.

The vast majority of Shulman's scheduled meetings were to take place in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building -- 115 of them. Another three were slated for the NEOB. That leaves just 25 percent of the meetings in the White House itself, or on its South Lawn.

Investor's Business Daily accused Shulman of having scurried "to the West Wing more than 100 times" in the piece "IRS Chief's 118 White House Visits Must Be Explained." But the publicly available data shows that the assertion of more than 100 West Wing visits is plainly wrong.

"Sooner or later this [question] will have to be answered," Fox News's Brit Hume tweeted, "What was the ex-IRS chief doing at the White House all those times?"

Fortunately, as it turns out, the public information he was referring to is really public. Here's who the IRS chief was scheduled to meet with, by building and by year, according to the visitor's logs. Again: This doesn't mean he actually went to meetings with all these folks, only that he was formally cleared for entry to meetings in which they were the point person organizing the gathering.


2009

Eisenhower Executive Office Building, recorded as Old Executive Office Building
  • Michael Hash, senior adviser, Health and Human Services Office of Health Reform and "one of the most important players in the 2009-2010 health-care debate," according to the Washington Post.
  • Margaret Weiss, George Washington University class of 2007 and a special assistant to Jeffrey D. Zients, then deputy director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Germain Edward Deseve, "the White House point man on stimulus implementation," according to USA Today.
  • Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs
New Executive Office Building
  • Jeptha Nafziger, Office of Management and Budget
White House
  • Jason Furman, deputy director of the National Economic Council 
  • President Obama. Shulman signed in to attend the "ECON PDB," or Economic Presidential Daily Briefing, with the president in the Oval Office on October 21. That was the only instance of face-to-face direct contact with him all year recorded by the White House visitor logs. 


2010

Eisenhower Executive Office Building, recorded as Old Executive Office Building
  • Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the Office for Health Reform
  • Sarah Fenn, staff assistant, working with DeParle
  • Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget
  • Robert Nabors, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget
  • Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget
  • Margaret Weiss, again
  • Ezekiel Emanuel, special adviser to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget for health policy, detailed from his post at the National Institutes of Health
  • Michael Hash, again
  • Ariel Levin, special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget. One of her recurring meetings gets the description "THIS IS FOR THE BI-WEEKLY HEALTH REFORM DEPUTIES MEETING." 
  • Alex Hornbrook
New Executive Office Building
  • Terri Payne, Office of Management and Budget
White House
  • Jason Furman, again
  • Chelsea Kammerer, White House special assistant to the director of intergovernmental affairs. Shulman signed in to attend a July 22 West Wing bill signing for the "Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act" in the State Room of the White House along with White House staff and at least 81 people from outside the building. You can watch Obama deliver remarks on it in this video; the law created "measures that hold government accountable for responsible use of taxpayer dollars and cut down on waste, fraud and abuse." 
  • Nancy-Ann DeParle, again

2011

Eisenhower Executive Office Building, recorded as Old Executive Office Building
  • Jeffrey Zients, again
  • Sarah Fenn, again
  • Nancy-Ann DeParle, again
  • Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers
  • Jeanne Lambrew, deputy director of the White House Office of Health Reform 
  • Keith Fontenot, associate director for health programs, Office of Management and Budget 
New Executive Office Building
  • Jeptha Nafziger, again 
White House
  • Chad Maisel, staff assistant, Office of the Deputy Secretary of the Dept. Agriculture  
  • Jason Furman, again
  • Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council
  • Allison Zelman, policy assistant for the Domestic Policy Council 
  • Nancy-Ann DeParle, again
  • Chris Lu, assistant to the president and Cabinet Secretary -- the White House liaison to the Cabinet departments and agencies 
  • South Lawn Visitors. Shulman was cleared for the evening of August 18 for an event with 326 others and for an "ALL APPOINTEE EVENT" with 4,176 others on September 8. There is no time of arrival confirming he attended either event.
  • President Obama. Shulman was cleared for a White House meeting in the Situation Room on June 3 with 14 others from outside the building plus the president and staff; the room is sometimes used as overflow meeting space and not just when there is a situation. Shulman also was cleared for a White House holiday party on December 2 with 443 others. He was not recorded as having signed in for either event.

2012

Eisenhower Executive Office Building, recorded as Old Executive Office Building
  • Danny Werfel, controller of the Office of Management and Budget
  • Jeffrey Zients, again 
  • Jeptha Nafziger, again 
  • Dana Hyde, associate director for general government programs, Office of Management and Budget 
White House
  • Cecilia Munoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council (after Barnes stepped down).  
  • Jason Furman, again
  • DeParle, again 
  • Alan Krueger, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, in the White House Mess on October 25. 
  • President Obama. Shulman was cleared to be on the South Lawn on June 5 with 3,692 other people and on the "State Floor" on the evening of December 13 for the White House Hanukkah Reception with 640 other people from outside the building, but not logged as signed in for either event. He did sign in for an evening event with the president on December 14, but the arrival and departure stamps show a 1-minute visit, which can't be correct, because that was Shulman's departure photo opp with the president.
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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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