Why You Can't Trust the White House (Even If Nobody's Lying)

Shifting stories cast doubts on answer to core question: Did Team Obama know about IRS abuse in real time?

White House press secretary Jay Carney at Thursday's press briefing (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (National Journal)

"You and others have said that no one in the White House knew about IRS actions before getting the heads up on the inspector general's report last month," George Stephanopoulos told senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer on Sunday. "Are you absolutely sure of that?"

"Yes," Pfeiffer replied.

Do you believe him?

Knowing the consequences that would befall the Obama administration if the White House or Obama's reelection campaign knew in real time that the IRS was targeting conservatives, I desperately want to believe Pfeiffer. I've known him for years. I like him. He's never lied to me.

But Pfeiffer is part of an institution that has demonstrated an inability and/or unwillingness to tell the full truth about the IRS scandal and a spate of other controversies. The White House can't be trusted.

That depressing conclusion (not unique to the Obama White House, sadly) was driven home Monday when spokesman Jay Carney used his daily briefing to announce that presidential advisers knew more about the IRS scandal a bit sooner than previously disclosed.

He said the West Wing's top lawyer, Kathryn Ruemmler, told White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior advisers on April 16 about an internal audit of Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of conservative groups. The White House discussed the potential findings with the Treasury Department but did not inform Obama, Carney said.

That contradicts earlier White House claims. The April 16 notification date is a weekly earlier than previously disclosed by the White House.

Pfeiffer said in television interviews Sunday that the White House did not know the results of the probe until last week, when the inspector general's report was released. Carney had previously said the White House lawyer was told "only about the fact that the IG was finishing a review" of the IRS's actions, and he cast it as a "normal sort of heads-up."

Reporting on Monday's briefing,  The New York Times said "the details released by Mr. Carney on Monday went beyond a previous White House account."

The Washington Post reported, "The administration's accounts of what it knew about the IRS inquiry have shifted markedly over the past week. Officials initially maintained that the administration knew of an inspector general's report was forthcoming but suggested that they did not know about its findings."

Discussions between officials at the Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, and their bosses in the West Wing were more extensive than initially acknowledged.

To be fair, these are not blockbuster developments. The White House pushed back its timeline by six or seven days and added some details about the inquiry notification.

Given the thousands of e-mails, hundreds of conversations, and dozens of people involved, it is possible that the White House innocently determined Monday that it had erred last week, and moved quickly to clear up the record.

The new media environment demands immediate and accurate answers. Journalists know more than most that being fast and accurate isn't easy.

And yet the revelations cost the Obama White House some measure of credibility. In politics, as in life, when you constantly change your story, even on small matters, you sow doubt about your credibility and competence.

In different ways, each of the so-called Obama scandals revolve around the issue of trust (as I wrote here, here, here, here, and here). The president's greatest asset is his credibility. If this pattern of spinning and shifting stories continues, it could become a liability.

The central question of the IRS scandal is whether Obama advisers at the White House or within the reelection campaign orchestrated or knew about the targeting of conservative groups.

Pfeiffer and his colleagues say the answer is no. I have no reason to think they are lying. I also have no confidence that they know.