NOW with Alex Wagner | May 20, 2013
>>> storm clouds over washington , both literal and figurative. it is monday, may 20th , and this is "now."
>>> republicans are channeling a version of rahm emanual and not letting a good controversy go to waste. after thus far failing to find a direct connection between president obama and the irs , in the agency's targeting of conservative groups, some republicans have started pulling on loose threads in the hopes of unwinding the administration. "the new york times" reports that the white house chief counsel learned about the investigation into the irs last month. weeks before president obama said he found out about it from the media. this morning, republican senator roy blount used the information to summon his best version of television indignation.
>> last month when the white house counsel find out about this, she decided i'm not going to tell the chief of staff? come on. that may have happened, if that happened, she should be out of that job by the end of this week, i would think.
>> meanwhile, other top republicans refused to let go of the conspiracy theories . anywhere minding reality and the actual factual evidence at hand. on "meet the press," senate minority leader, mitch mcconnell suggested that the irs was acting at the direction of the president.
>> there is a culture of intimidation throughout the administration, the irs is just the most recent example.
>> the problem with baseless theorizing on a national news program is that oftentimes a question-and-answer session will reveal that it is baseless theorizing.
>> do you have any evidence that the president of the united states directed what you call a culture of intimidation at the irs to target political opponents?
>> i don't think we know what the facts are.
>> but that hasn't stopped you from accusing?
>> well we're talking about here an attitude that the government knows best. the nanny state is here, to tell us all what to do. and if we start criticizing, you get tafrgted.
>> and then there are those in the gop who have embraced a unique, hybrid strategy of baseless theorizing and fear-mongering, tea party firebrand rand paul cited the existence of a mysterious policy document that specifically called on the irs to go after white house foes.
>> apparently there is a policy and i think we're going to find that there's a written policy, that says that we were targeting people who were opposed to the president.
>> once again, the problem with baseless theorizing and fear-mongering on a national news program is that oftentimes, a question-and-answer session will reveal that it is baseless theorizing and fear-mongering.
>> are you telling me you think there's a memo somewhere in which someone said in the memo, we're targeting people who are going after the president? is that what i heard you say?
>> well, we keep hearing the reports and we have several specifically worded items say who is being targeted. in fact one of the bullet points says, those who are critical of the president. so i don't know if that comes from a policy, but that's what's being reported in the press and reported orally. i haven't seen a policy statement. but i think we need to see that.
>> reported orally. so far, the american people do not seem to be all that interested. white house senior adviser dan fiver had words for the cracker crackerjack scandal squad.
>> we've seen this play from the playbook before. they want to drag washington into a swamp of partisan bickering. we're not going to let that happen. the president has business to do for the american people .
>> a new poll taken friday and saturday shows not only has the past week not hurt the president's approval rating, his numbers are equal or higher than they were in april. should scandal-watchers feel berest of something legitimate to sink their teeth in, this morning brings news of the department of justice 's phone record seizures. joining me today, washington bureau chief of the the " huffington post ," ryan grimm, npr white house correspondent, ary shapiro. national political reporter at the " washington post ," nia malika henderson and former white house press secretary and msnbc contributor, a man who is probably psyched to not be at the mode yum these days, robert gibbs .
>> that's the chyron now?
>> totally psyched to not have to go to the briefing.
>> when i was in the briefing room and somebody asked me a hard question as david gregory did to mitch mcconnell or as candy did to rand paul , that my eyes didn't get big like his did.
>> do you have any proof and they were like -- no, but you always started with --
>> let's be clear.
>> let's be clear.
>> give the air of validity. but going like this? when asked to follow-up? a sure sign of nothing being there. let's start, before we get to the a.p. stuff, which i'm sure many people, specifically ary will have lots to say on. i want it talk about this weekend and the indignation and the outrage that seems to be felt by republicans that they can't quite find the thing that's going to bring down the obama administration.
>> if you think about what are we talking about today. we're talking about "the new york times" says kathy rummeler, who let's be clear --
>> white house counsel .
>> as mart as any person who works in the white house , she's fabulous. "the new york times" is reporting that kathy knew last week or knew in april. which is exactly what jay carney told the white house press corps last week. to say that there's nothing, not anything there there would be sort of an understatement. but what would roy blunt be saying today if the report was -- kathy told the president in april, and then this report came out or was made public in mid may. roy blunt , mitch mcconnell , rand paul would all be on tv saying what did the white house do when they found out the inspector general was investigating the irs ? what phone records do they have? who did they try to intimidate? i mean, if we can take what we know happened, and make up a series and a fact pattern that doesn't fit any proof that they have to offer into the record, imagine what the flip side would be if kathy walked into the oval office and said -- sir, the inspector general is doing this, blah blah blah . we would have a whole other set of ask skbirscy theories. it's like a whole other trunk of conspiracy theories . if this happens, do this, pull out this and do that. if it happens to be this, use these.
>> or if you're rand paul , give america insight into those things that are reported orally. what does that even mean? i do want to focus, though, on the -- there's been so much talk about this irs scandal. controversy, whatever you want to call it. and then there's reporting from the " l.a. times " and "the new york times" this weekend, talking about exactly what happened in cincinnati, ryan . and it is fairly mundane. it sounds like really overwhelmed civil servants , highlights, in 2010 according to npr, this applications for 501(c)4 tax status came into the office, that number nearly doubles by 2012 . according to the irs inspector general's report one person was given the task of sifting through the applications deemed politically sensitive. it sounds like a mess.
>> sure, and it shows why trance transparency is jgenerally a good thing for the executive branch . as soon as they exposed the emails around benghazi , they said oh, never mind then, it's a bunch of people squabbling over talking points . everybody wants to have their input. add a comma here, everybody needs to feel important. going back and forth on a weekend. same thing with cincinnati. oh, this is what was happening. a bunch of bureaucrats, you know, messing up and overworked and so just put it out there. and then, you know --
>> let the people see how mundane it is.
>> i think both ryan 's point and robert 's point speak to the crucial question as to whether a scandal has legs or not. whether it is a true scandal or not. which is what is the white house involvement. i mean i think back to the second bush term, when a bunch of u.s. attorneys were fired all at once, it was a huge justice department controversy what made it a real scandal, what made it really damage the white house was that there was white house involvement. and so that's going to be the focus on all three of these. the a.p. phone records, the benghazi , the irs scandal. that's what everybody is digging for, that's what the white house is defending itself against.
>> nia, not all scandals are created equal , right? the a.p. stuff i think has legs in the press because the press is directly affected. the press is directly affected by it and --
>> why do you look at me when you say that.
>> i am a member of the press, theoretically and there's a sense of indignation. the irs thing seems distinctly more partisan, as does benghazi and that is something i think the republicans are going to try to keep alive until 2014 because they think they could run on it.
>> that's right. they have this grab bag and they're gorging themselves on all of these things. they can't figure out, a, is obama overly involved, or not involved enough. they can't figure out what argument they're going to make, is it incompetence, is it government overreach. so you have them out there. really advancing all of these theories about this president. i think the problem is, that the republicans have been doing this for a number of years. they sort of shot themselves in the foot early on. because they were playing footsie with the birthers. now they have a legitimate criticism against this administration, it isn't so easy for them to have the credibility to make these arguments.
>> robert , i will read a quote from john favro, former speech writer to the president.
>> i've met him.
>> you're familiar with him.
>> the guru behind fenway strategies who writes in the " daily beast ," the hand-wringers and bed-wetters in the d.c. pundit should know that barack obama will never be object their timeline, he does not value being first over being right. he will not spend his presidency chasing news cycles. he will not shake up his white house staff just because of some offhand advice offered to politico.
>> the disdain actually is dripping off of the card that i read.
>> i can imagine the cath ars is that went with finally expelling that paragraph from your brain on to a laptop.
>> i think in the end, all of these scandals are so-called scandals will matter only if the problem doesn't get solved in three or six months, okay? benghazi is a horrible tragedy where four americans lost their lives. its staying power will be whether or not in six months, our embassies and our diplomats have the security they need. in the irs , can you file an application for a 501(c)4 from whatever political bent and have it evaluated on the law not on politics? that in the end, look it reminds me a lot of the oil spill , right? ary sat through some of the those mundane briefings on the oil spill .
>> i did, too, but you never called me on that.
>> you bring that up a lot.
>> continue on, robert .
>> there was, there's always heated light about what happens initially. but in the end, does the problem get solved? does the oil stop leaking? and you know, i like back at something like the oil spill that i spent literally every day, probably four to five hours a day for three months doing. and had it been solved poorly, it would have been a topic in the last presidential election . it wasn't brought up in the last presidential election , because despite some bumps at the very beginning, it got solved. and that's in the end, how the american people outside of the beltway are going to judge whether these are scandals or whether these just happen to be topics in the news on a certain day.
>> do you think having been inside the white house in some critical moments that that is the posture inside the oval office ? this is not, this is not an administration that chases the news cycle. there is a huge amount of disdain for the, this scandal-mongering. but at the same time, should the president be more responsive? you could probably argue that it has seemed like the white house has in some ways chased the news cycle in the last week. in so far they're issuing statements about embassy security and clearly trying to do some kind of triage.
>> and put dan fifer out on the sunday shows.
>> and jay carney .
>> i do think look, at some point you, you self-correct a little bit. and you put out a bunch of stuff in order to get ahead of it. but i have no doubt in my mind that they're sitting in the white house , as i sat through the very same meetings, with somebody saying what i said. which is the test of this will be whether or not this problem is solved in three or six months. not on what happened on the first day.
>> i think there's something more dangerous for the white house in all three of these controversies which is the president obama has been on a long-term project to get the american people to have confidence in their government, to trust that their government is competent. is acting in their best interests . and the narrative of all three of these controversies, serves to undermine that. which independent of any one of them really is is a blow to what president obama has been trying to do.
>> i think that's right it goes to obama 's brand. he was supposed to be the anti-clinton, not mired in scandals. he was supposed to be the anti-bush on not engaging in government overreach. and this goes to the brand. and i think for 2014 , that's got to be the fear. that republicans have a pretty neat narrative to run against the democratic brand. if not obama himself.
>> i think this is, let's just separate it also from the one administration versus another. this is about droemocracy and participatory democracy . citizen satisfaction, that doesn't make the challenge any less daunting, we should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their power struggles long enough to take serious their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.
>> the biggest threat to our democracy in the last century has been the fbi under hoover. it was just atrocious.
>> wait, wait, whoa. going in a different direction with this, ryan . the doj scandal is the real scandal here. and this fits in with what the doj has been doing for the last several years. you know, you saw how they're going after these three peace activists and charging them as terrorists, the ones that broke into the nuclear facility. they hounded aaron schwartz , internet activist to death. they're chasing medical marijuana all over the country. and so when this comes out that they, that they subpoenaed hundreds of you know, reporters' phone records, it just fits in with the idea that there's this creep within the department of justice that ought to be checked.
>> i mean i guess i would even take it outside of the three scandals that we're talking about. it's more like you are outside washington , they can't get any legislation passed. and now there's just this mess. there's this fight, there's this turf war between agencies, there's continued fighting between republicans and democrats. there's a sense that the entire system is broken, it's corrupt and i mean why be involved? why vote any more? why run for office? in that way, i'm not saying that this is sort of the final straw , but i feel like this is this trend that is very disturbing in terms of where we go as a country and the next generation.
>> right, fifer says the republicans are trying to distract from the obama agenda. what agenda? what are they going to do over the next three and a half years.
>> that's a good way to tee up the next block. we'll talk about something they may be doing in washington . we are, i don't know, is there breaking news? there was something about some breaking