The Fact Checker: Master Archives
REP. PAUL GOSAR: “Are you aware that in July 2012 Senator Harry Reid claimed Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for the last 10 years and claimed to have the information supporting that? Are you aware of that? I’m sure you are.”
FORMER IRS COMMISSIONER DOUG SHULMAN: “I have a recollection of reading that in the paper.”
GOSAR: “Do you know how Mr. Reid obtained that information? Did you look into this?”
SHULMAN: “I have no idea how he...”
GOSAR: “Doesn’t that alarm you that — all of a sudden, this pertinent information comes up, you’re the head of this agency, and you’re not asking questions? Shame on you. Absolutely shame on you.”
— Exchange at House Oversight Committee hearing, May 22, 2013
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) brought up the question of Mitt Romney’s taxes after inquiring about two other cases involving alleged Internal Revenue Service leaks — one supposedly involving White House aide Austan Goolsbee and another involving not-for-profit journalism organization ProPublica. Former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman responded that Inspector General inquiries were launched in the first two instances, but he seemed puzzled by the Romney reference.
Small wonder. Reid’s assertion was not very credible to begin with — he earned Four Pinocchios for making an unsupported claim. Let’s quickly review the history.
Reid took aim at Romney after the Republican nominee took the unusual step of refusing to release more than two years of his tax returns. Reid, on the floor of the Senate, charged that “the word’s out that he [Romney] hasn’t paid any taxes for 10 years.” (At other times, he asserted the period was 12 years.) Reid originally said he learned this from a person who had invested with Bain Capital, Romney’s former firm, but then he said that “a number of people” had told him this claim.
“Why does Benghazi go on? No one was ever fired? So, people made tragic errors. No one’s accepting responsibility and no one was fired.”
— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), on CNN’s “State of the Union,” May 19, 2013
Paul’s comment this week jumped out at us because we remember the headlines back in December:
“4 Are Out at State Dept. After Scathing Report on Benghazi Attack” — The New York Times
“Four State Department officials disciplined following Benghazi probe findings” — The Washington Post
“Four State Department officials were removed from their posts,” The Times said, while The Post said they “were disciplined.” Eric J. Boswell, the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, “resigned,” both reports said.
We will leave aside the question of responsibility — we recall then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taking responsibility but perhaps that is in the eye of the beholder — and focus on whether anyone has been “fired.”
Depending on the dictionary, you get a variety of definitions: To discharge from a position; to dismiss from employment; having lost your job. Moira Bagley, spokesman for Paul, says that, for the senator, “fired” means “actual job termination,” meaning no longer working at the State Department.
The dismissals were announced after the completion of the Accountability Review Board report, which fixed the blame for the poor security that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, including the U.S. ambassador, at the Assistant Secretary level and below. Besides Boswell, two other officials in Diplomatic Security lost their positions, as well as a deputy assistant secretary in the Near East bureau.
“That’s a very serious offense that happened where Republicans on the Hill, we voluntarily provided these e-mails to, took one of them, doctored it and gave it to ABC News in an attempt to smear the president.”
— White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” May 19, 2013
“I think one of the problems that there’s so much controversy here is because one of the e-mails was doctored by a Republican source and given to the media to falsely smear the president.”
— Pfeiffer, on Fox News Sunday, May 19
“They received these e-mails months ago, didn’t say a word about it, didn’t complain ... And then last week a Republican source provided to Jon Karl of ABC News a doctored version of a White House e-mail that started this entire fear. After 25,000 pieces of paper are provided to Congress they have to doctor e-mail to make political hay, you know they’re getting desperate here.”
— Pfeiffer, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” May 19
When a White House aide uses the same word — “doctored” — on three television shows, you know it is a carefully crafted talking point. On top of that, he says that this was done to “smear the president.”
These are strong words concerning the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. But is this a case of the White House communications chief taking liberties with the facts?
Under pressure, the White House in March provided the e-mails to Capitol Hill Republicans surrounding the development of its talking points on the Benghazi attack when John Brennan was nominated to be CIA director. The talking points became an issue because they were used by U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice on the Sunday public affairs shows the week after the attack. Republicans, however, were not permitted to have copies of e-mails, but could only take notes on them.
In the days since the Internal Revenue Service first disclosed that it had targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, new information has emerged from both the Treasury inspector general’s report and congressional testimony Friday that calls into question key statements made by Lois G. Lerner, the IRS’s director of the exempt organizations division.
The clumsy way the IRS disclosed the issue, as well as Lerner’s press briefing by phone, were seen at the time as a public relations disaster. But even so, it is worth reviewing three key statements made by Lerner and comparing them to the facts that have since emerged.
“But between 2010 and 2012, we started seeing a very big uptick in the number of 501(c)(4) applications we were receiving, and many of these organizations applying more than doubled, about 1500 in 2010 and over 3400 in 2012.”
Lerner made this comment while issuing a seemingly impromptu apology at an American Bar Association panel. (It was later learned that this was a planted question — more on that below.) In her telling, the tax-exempt branch was simply overwhelmed by applications, and so unfortunate shortcuts were taken.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.): “In the AP [Associated Press] case you have appointed Ronald Machen, and I’m sure he is a fine U.S. attorney, but can he be considered to be independent when in fact when this Congress held you in contempt he was the individual who refused, on your orders, to prosecute the case? If he will obey your orders in not living up to a contempt of Congress, can we believe that he is in fact independent?”
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.: “I did not order Mr. Machen not to do anything with regard to — I won’t characterize it — the contempt finding from this Congress. He made the determination about what he was going to do on his own.”
— exchange on Capitol Hill, May 15, 2013
The fierce exchanges between Rep. Darrell Issa and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday garnered a lot of attention, but there was also an interesting substantive point that was discussed: Did Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, make his own decision regarding whether to prosecute Holder for criminal contempt of Congress?
Holder said Machen “made the determination.” What does the evidence show?
Last June, President Obama invoked executive privilege to withhold documents related to the botched “Fast and Furious” gun operation, and the House of Representatives acted by citing Holder for criminal contempt of Congress. The Justice Department quickly responded by saying Holder would not be prosecuted, citing similar decisions by Justice Departments in Democratic and Republican administrations.
“I believe if we want to know what happened in Benghazi, it starts with the fact that there was not enough security. There was not enough security because the budget was cut.”
— Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), speech on the Senate floor, May 14, 2013
Sen. Boxer, in a speech that echoed an opinion article she published in The Huffington Post, this week tried to turn attention back to reductions in State Department funding that Democrats sought to highlight at the first congressional hearings into the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
As Boxer put it:
It takes funding to protect an embassy. It takes funding to protect a consulate. It takes funding to protect an outpost. Yes, it takes funding. Who cut the funds from embassy security? The Republicans in the House, that is who — hundreds of millions of dollars. If it were not for the Democrats, it would have been cut more, because when it came here, we stood our ground. We had to accommodate their cuts. That is how the process works. So I think the Benghazi ‘scandal’ starts with the Republicans looking in the mirror. Mirror mirror, who is the fairest of them all? They ought to ask: Mirror, mirror, who cut the funding for diplomatic security across this world for America? The answer: Republicans.
In the Huffington Post article, Boxer provided an actual figure: “The truth is — between fiscal years 2011 and 2012, the Republican-led House of Representatives sought to cut more than $450 million from President Obama’s budget request for embassy security funding.”
We had not looked closely at these claims back in the fall, but now that Boxer has revived them — and there have been two major reports and extensive testimony on the attack — it seems worthwhile to provide an assessment. There are two specific questions: Was security in Benghazi affected by the State Department budget and did Republicans cut funding in a way that affected security?
Politicians often play games with budget numbers, and so one must be careful at accepting numbers at face value. Note how Boxer asserted that House Republicans “sought to cut more than $450 million from President Obama’s budget request.” That means she is talking about the president’s proposed budget — which in any administration is often a pie-in-the-sky document.
“Obamacare is fully implemented January 1st, even though the regulations haven’t been written yet. And Brian, we’ve got 33,000 pages of regulations that they’ve already written. If we stacked it up here, it would be seven feet tall.”
— Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), speaking on “Fox and Friends,” May 13, 2013
“Implementation has also become a bureaucratic nightmare, with some 159 new government agencies, boards and programs busily enforcing the roughly 20,000 pages of rules and regulations already associated with this law.”
— Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), on the third anniversary of the law’s passage, March 22, 2013
This column has been updated
Rep. Richard Hudson this week offered such an astonishing figure — 33,000 pages of “Obamacare” regulations! — that we immediately wanted to know more.
But it turns out that Hudson got a little bit ahead of himself. An aide said that he misspoke and meant to say 13,000 pages. “Whether it is 13,000, 22,000 or 33,000, it is too many,” the aide added.
But then it turns out that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has actually tweeted a photograph of this stack of paper. By his math, the Obama administration has issued 20,000 pages of regulations “associated” with the new law.
How does this stuff get figured out?
The process the McConnell folks used is fairly simple. They went to the Web site for the Federal Register and searched for “Affordable Care Act,” the official name for the health-care law. That turned up 897 documents.
“The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism.”
— President Obama, remarks at a news conference, May 13, 2013
Once again, it appears that we must parse a few presidential words. We went through this question at length during the 2012 election, but perhaps a refresher course is in order.
Notably, during a debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, President Obama said that he immediately told the American people that the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya “was an act of terror.” But now he says he called it “an act of terrorism.”
Some readers may object to this continuing focus on words, but presidential aides spend a lot of time on words. Words have consequences. Is there a difference between “act of terror” and “act of terrorism”?
Immediately after the attack, the president three times used the phrase “act of terror” in public statements:
“I first want to thank the chair of our committee, the budget committee, for doing such a terrific job in bringing us all together. My colleagues on the committee, as we all know, we worked very, very hard together in order to be able to put together a balanced budget that reflects the values of the American people, that’s fair, that’s balanced in values and approach as well as in numbers, and we did that.”
— Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), remarks on the Senate floor, May 8, 2013
A reader asked: Is the Democratic-crafted budget plan “a balanced budget,” at least in the conventional sense? Most people would interpret that phrase as meaning a plan that in theory leads to an equal level of revenues and expenditures by a given date. In other words, the federal government no longer ran deficits.
After all, House Republicans claim to have a budget that leads to balance in 10 years. Do Democrats? (Note: We take no position on whether a balanced budget is good for the economy or not. Economists differ on that issue, with some arguing that deficit spending, if properly invested, can be better for economic growth.)
It’s important to remember that these 10-year budget blueprints are more political, aspirational documents than serious financial plans. No one really knows what the economy will look like a decade from now, and so actual tax revenues and government spending in the future are heavily dependent on factors beyond politicians’ control.
From time to time, the Fact Checker writes an analytic look at news events, based on his three decades of experience covering diplomacy and politics, rather than a traditional fact check. This is one of those columns.
There have been many questions raised about the development of the administration’s talking points in the aftermath of the attack on Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador. There have been allegations that the administration deliberately covered up the fact that this was a terrorist attack. We have noted before, in our extensive timeline of Benghazi statements, how long it took the president to concede that point in the midst of his reelection campaign.
But with the release of 12 versions of the talking points Friday by ABC News, perhaps there is an alternative explanation: This basically was a bureaucratic knife fight, pitting the State Department against the CIA.
In other words, the final version of the talking points may have been so wan because officials simply deleted everything that upset the two sides. So they were left with nothing.
Let’s examine the evidence for a bureaucratic explanation.