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Week In Politics: IRS, Benghazi Emails, AP Phone Logs


And there is much to discuss with our weekly political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Hey, there guys.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.


CORNISH: So we've got this trifecta of controversies this week that came to a head in one way or another. We just heard from Peter Overby about the IRS, but there's also Benghazi. The White House released 100 pages of emails revealing the paper trail of edits to talking points for the attack on the U.S. consulate there. And lastly, Attorney General Eric Holder grilled by lawmakers as well this week over the Justice Department's decision to subpoena phone records from the Associated Press while investigating some national security leaks.

So the question is actually which of these feels the most scandalous to you and I'll start with you, E.J.

DIONNE: Well, I think the one that raises the most substantive questions is the IRS. I think the Benghazi scandal increasingly is all smoke and no gun. I mean, we've had word that the emails that caused such a ruckus a week ago were actually not exactly what the emails that were exchanged within the government were. And broadly speaking, what the Obama administration has been saying about those emails is true.

And the notion that when we should be talking about how do we make our embassies more secure, we're arguing about talking points, is just crazy. And I think that one's going to fade. I think the press one is very serious. I'm not sure it's a scandal in the sense that it involves President Obama and it apparently doesn't involve Attorney General Holder because he's recused himself.

CORNISH: Well, let me come back to you for a minute there because I want to let David jump in at least with his ranking of which of these feels the most scandalous to you.

BROOKS: I got to start with the Holder one or the Justice Department attack. That seems to be the most upfront, the most obvious and the most thuggish government overreach, which really makes it impossible for the press to do its job. The IRS could rise to that level, but there are things we don't know. Who instigated the pressure on the Tea Party groups?

Who in Treasury and maybe in the White House knew or if anybody knew in Treasury and the White House? And how soon were things known and did anybody try to cover it up? So those are open questions. I more or less agree with E.J. on Benghazi. I think the talking points thing is probably a non-scandal. There still is the larger issue of why we didn't come to support Ambassador Stephens when he was in peril. But the talking points are mostly nothing.

DIONNE: Could I just say on the IRS, obviously any kind of political targeting by the IRS is wrong and that's why the IRS story is so serious. But I think we're not talking enough about the other scandal with the IRS, which is a whole lot of these groups, and I'm talking liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian, almost all these groups should not get 501c4 status.

Let's remember, we're not talking about the IRS going out and auditing conservative groups. These were groups applying for a status that gives them special privileges. The original law said that 501c4 status should be granted to groups that engage exclusively in social welfare activities. Five years later, the IRS changed that to primarily. Well, no wonder these IRS agents were confused.

Imagine someone rewriting their marriage vow to say exclusivity when it comes to faithfulness really means only being primarily faithful. So there's a problem at the core of this that goes beyond the fact there shouldn't be political targeting. On the press, I agree. This is vast overreach. It's just not clear to me what the attorney general's role is in this.

CORNISH: And I want to actually jump in on that because we did see some tension this week come out in an exchange between Attorney General Holder and Congressman Darrell Issa at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. Holder was in the midst of answering a question from the congressman about an issue that actually is not related to the AP leaks. Here it is.

ERIC HOLDER: I'm sure there must have been a good reason why only the two and from parts were...

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: Yes. You didn't want us to see the details. Mr. Attorney General...

HOLDER: No, no, no.

ISSA: In knowing the two and from...

HOLDER: That's what you typically do.

ISSA: ...knowing the two and...

HOLDER: No, I'm not going to stop talking now. Characterize something as something ...else (unintelligible).

ISSA: Mr. Chairman, would you inform the witness as to the rules of this committee?

HOLDER: inappropriate and is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It's unacceptable and it's shameful.

CORNISH: And, of course, the subtext here is that Congressman Issa is the lawmaker who helped lead a successful effort in the House to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress. David, what did this exchange reveal to you?

BROOKS: Yeah, I actually don't think - so far, none of these scandals have gotten to some of the principles - President Obama, Attorney General Holder. I think they're more about government than about impeachment and some of the ridiculous things that are being said. They're more about how government agencies work.

And what we've seen is in this climate, some government agencies have a tendency to work in unrestrained behavior, desiring to control other people in really an egregious way without any sense of self-policing. And I think that's the problem in the Justice Department. There was just no internal restraint.

And I think that's also a bit of the problem in the IRS, no sense of internal restraint, that power does corrupt and that people who hold power really have to be very restrained in how they use it. And so it's just a laxity of culture here. But I do not think it's something that directly implicates a lot of the famous policymakers in Washington.


DIONNE: First on the Issa-Holder thing, I mean, Congress has really had it out for Eric Holder. And remember on this leak investigation, a year ago they were denouncing him as somebody who couldn't conduct a fair leak investigation because it involved the Obama administration. So they go all out on the leak and, as I say, I think overreach in - way overreach in the subpoena. And now they're on Holder for doing that, the very people who have supported very aggressive actions by government on anything having to do with national security, I'm talking about the Republicans.

I very much disagree with David in trying to view all of this in one big government prism. I think the IRS agents were wrong, but I think they're dealing with a law that - a regulation that is almost impossible to understand as it's been interpreted. These 501c4s sprouted up after the Citizens United case, and they were struggling, and they made some bad decisions.

But I don't link all of these together the way David does.

CORNISH: So the question is, does the public? I mean, the other political conversation happening this week more generally has been about trust in President Obama, and has something substantial been lost in these last few days?

BROOKS: I would say certainly distrust in government has to rise. Listen, the Tea Party and members - Republican members of Congress have been claiming for a long, long time that they were being politically targeted or at least targeted by the IRS. Now it turns out there's a lot of substance. For whatever motivation, that was absolutely true.

And so how can you - that'll - this is a very cynical country about government right now, and a lot of these storylines, the overreach in the national security state, the IRS and the Justice Department, these underline the basic cynicism and distrust people have toward their government.

CORNISH: E.J., you say these aren't linked, but what do you see here?

DIONNE: Well politically, especially the IRS scandal, will be great for the Republicans because it remotivates the Tea Party, which we hadn't heard much from recently. In terms of Obama, I think he started the week in a deep hole. I think he's better off now than he was five days ago because he moved very aggressively to release all the emails on Benghazi. He's clearly gotten out front on the IRS. He's used words just like the Republicans used in denouncing this.

And he is now for - he's again re-endorsed a shield law to protect journalists. So I think what started out as a really awful week for President Obama ended up as an unfortunate week, but it got a little better as it went along.

CORNISH: And David, the last few seconds to you. On Republicans, we had House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former House speaker, this week say that they need to be careful of overreach. What are you thinking here?

BROOKS: Yeah, they haven't - a few people have certainly gone there, but they do have to worry about it. But the people responsible for the scandal generally are blamed for the scandal. I would say one thing about President Obama. He really does have to have some positive agenda to displace this news. Speeding up infrastructure programs is a make-believe policy.

Part of the problem with this is there's a policy vacuum, an agenda vacuum coming out of the White House.

CORNISH: That's David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Gentlemen, thank you.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.