“Has this been the worst year of your presidency?”
That was how the Associated Press opened up President Obama’s final press conference of 2013. Not the most original question, but scabrous enough, especially when the same reporter followed up by telling the president, “Your credibility has taken a hit.” This was the year that trust in the president tumbled to 50 percent, and sometimes below. Republicans had been wondering when their fellow Americans would get there.
So it must be frustrating to his opponents that Obama’s mistakes were all self-made. He was the one who said, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” He let the National Security Agency run without a leash. Republican investigators never managed to nail him, by which I mean Rep. Darrell Issa never found the scandal that could bring down the president.
Did he try? Did he ever. In his second term leading the House Oversight and Government Affairs committee, Issa made lunges at the reports of IRS bias in tax exemption forms, at the Benghazi attacks of 9/11/12, and at anything else that looked promising. Was the nominee for secretary of labor holding out on the emails Issa wanted to subpoena? Best to fire off a letter asking for them, and publicize the big-government intransigence.
To comb over Issa’s requests in 2013 is to read an dark and apparently alternate history of the Obama administration, one in which the president should have been impeached by now. Many thanks to Slate’s Emma Roller for shaping and researching this recap:
Sequestergate. In March and April, when the mandatory spending machete came down and federal agencies started cutting back, Republicans questioned whether the White House wanted the pain to be intensified. Issa took those concerns and threw them at the FAA, asking whether the threat of airline delays was manufactured. “Questions have been raised about whether the FAA is properly applying the budget reductions required by sequestration.” Solving the mystery would require “all documents and communications between or among employees, agents, or contractors of DOT or FAA and employees, agents, or contractors of the Executive Office of the President referring or relating” to sequestration.
How’d it end? Congress ended up plussing funding for air travel, pre-empting the crisis. No proof has surfaced—yet—to prove that federal agencies were ordered to make sequestration (or the shutdown) especially hurtful.
Benghazigate I: Hillarygate. Issa investigated the response to the attacks in Benghazi all year, but—for want of a better cliché—the former secretary of state was obviously the white whale of the investigation. In April, Issa and Republicans issued an alternative Benghazi report (the State Department had written its own earlier) that claimed Clinton had seen cables from Libya that should have tipped her off to the danger—one “signed” by her! “The secretary of state was just wrong,” said Issa on Fox News. “She said she did not participate in this and yet, only a few months before the attack, she outright denied security in her signature in a cable.” The problem: The automatic “signature” wasn’t actually proof that she’d seen the cable.
How’d it end? Clinton is still a possible candidate for president in 2016.
IRSgate. This was going to be the one. Tea Party groups had complained to Republicans about some real static when they tried to apply for tax exemptions. Issa asked the agency’s inspector general to look into the charges—the ones that hit conservatives. The report came back positive. Was the White House involved? It had to be, right?
“Like so many things that are wrongdoing, it can be a local event in the wrongdoing, overzealous IRS individuals, people who just start down a path of one, then 10, then 100 of these, if you will, Tea Party groups,” Issa said on Fox. (He is a frequent guest on Fox, if that wasn’t clear.) “At some point people saw it, they became aware of it and it continued.”
For much of the summer, Issa sent requests for more information from the IRS and the White House. His team interviewed witnesses. When President Obama wasn’t implicated, Issa suggested that the agency had done this “on his behalf.” When a CNN interviewer challenged that, Issa said, “I’ve never said it came out of the office of the president or his campaign.” Later, Fox (again!) reported that Issa had finally grabbed evidence tracing the scandal “all the way up into the White House.” The fact that the White House counsel had learned of the “targeting” from the IRS’s Rules and Agreements office had actually been reported by the IG two months earlier.
How’d it end? Lois Lerner, the IRS official blamed for the “targeting,” announced a convenient retirement in September. Republicans started asking whether FEC staff and IRS staff had been in contact, illegally, about the status of big conservative 501(c)3s.
Benghazi II. In mid-May, Issa appeared to get fresh breaks in the investigation—new witnesses, new memos. The evidence was mounting, he told everyone, that the administration had covered up details from the period around the attack, and done so in front of Congress.
“We've got to have real-time, over-the-shoulder ability to see what we are being told,” Issa told Fox’s Sean Hannity in May. “You know, ultimately they have made a claim. The administration has made a claim that for classified reasons they change the story. We believe right now that may be the biggest lie of all, and we intend on making the president come clean as to, quote, ‘What the classified reasons are that would justify lying to the American people.’ ”
“Any crime?” asked Hannity, eagerly.
“Lying to Congress is a crime,” said Issa.
On May 10, ABC News published an exclusive report based on some of that new evidence—the talking points used by the administration after the attack, the ones that speculated that attackers had spontaneously risen up because an anti-Islam video made them so agitated, had been edited “with extensive input from the State Department.” This, it turned out, was not quite true. ABC’s report was based on descriptions made by Hill sources (given anonymity despite their incompetence), not on a memo that had far less editing from the White House or State Department.
How’d it end? It hasn’t. The heat has decreased since the error 60 Minutes made in its Benghazi report, when it gave half the story’s screen time to a contractor who’d told superiors that he was never there but told a book publisher otherwise. Some Benghazi-watchers, including John McCain, think that the contractor was smeared. And Issa has subpoenaed the State Department for more documents. You can’t indict if you don’t try.