White House spokesman Jay Carney Monday waved off concerns over the president’s prime-time public interference in the FBI investigation of the Internal Revenue Service.
“Obviously we do not interfere with Justice Department investigations,” Carney said when he was asked about President Barack Obama’s statement just before the Super Bowl that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” in his IRS’ decision to deny routine fundraising rights and legal protections to tea party political groups during the 2012 campaign.
Besides, said Carney, Obama’s statement is reasonable. “What we have learned through the independent Inspector General and through the testimony that we’ve seen completely backs up what the President said,” Carney told ABC’s Jon Karl.
The president’s comments were also justified by reports in 20 media outlets, Carney said. “I think have about 20 different news organizations that cite the variety of ways that [Obama’s claim] was established,” he said.
The IRS’ decisions were simply “bone-headed decisions out of a local office,” Obama claimed in the interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.
Obama’s public intervention during a FBI investigation might amount to obstruction of justice, said one lawyer who has been watching the scandal.
If the president is “engaged in any activity designed to influence the Department of Justice from impartially and adequately fulfilling their duties, that’s obstruction,” the lawyer said.
If Obama was “ordering [investigators] to stand down as they get close to something that is embarrassing, that is when you’re getting into obstruction territory,” the lawyer said. However, “we don’t have any evidence that is going on,” the lawyer said.
Obama has interfered in criminal investigations matters before.
In March 2012, as the presidential campaign was heating up, Obama used a Rose Garden ceremony to declare his sympathy with a African-American youth who was killed by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” Obama announced.
“I think [Martin’s parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and were going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” said Obama.
Obama recognized at the time that his statement was controversial. “I’m head of the executive branch and the attorney general reports to me, and I’ve got to be careful about my statements to make sure we not impair any investigation that’s taking place right now,” Obama said.
Prior to his statement, Obama’s friend and appointee, Attorney General Eric Holder, helped Florida protesters who were pushing local law-enforcement officials to charge Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman.
After the election, Zimmerman was found innocent of charges, prompting the president to admit that African-Americans are more likely to commit crimes and to suffer from crime.
Carney has repeatedly declared that Obama does not interfere in criminal investigations.
In numerous press conferences, Carney has avoided answering questions by telling reporters that he can’t comment on investigations, and by telling reporters to contact one of Obama’s agencies.
Last May, Carney declined to comment on the FBI investigation into the IRS’ activities. “It is in many ways, with regards to the White House, it’s the most important fact — that we do not interfere with or intervene in criminal investigations or independent inspector general audits. And that is the case here,” Carney said.
“I can’t discuss, rather, the specifics of that ongoing [FBI] investigation [into the Benghazi jihad attack of 2012] or the internal deliberations related to it,” Carney said May 22, 2013.
On the same day, Carney declined to comment on a Justice Department investigation into a possible spy case that involved a reporter. “The action you’re suggesting any president might take would be to actively involve himself or herself, any president, in an ongoing criminal investigation. The consequences of doing that are potentially enormous,” Carney said.
On Jan. 22, 2014, Carney declined to comment on the investigation into Edward Snowden’s leak of numerous government secrets.
“I would say that this is an ongoing criminal investigation; there have been charges brought. … I don’t have anything to add from here on that matter,” he said.
David French, a senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, downplayed the president’s comments. “The most charitable way to describe it as a premature statement, given that the FBI has not concluded it investigation,” said French, who is suing the IRS on behalf of 41 tea party groups which were hit by the IRS discrimination.
“A more accurate way of describing it would be political spin,” French added, noting that one IRS official has declined to testify, citing the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination in a crime.
“If the Justice Department is doing what it should be doing, the president is walled off. … [because the investigation] has an awful lot to do with the 2010 and 2012 election cycles,” he said.
“I’m more concerned that [the investigation] is being led by a lawyer who is a large donor to the president in two campaigns,” French said. “That raises grave concerns,” he said.
In mid-January, congressional investigators revealed that Barbara Bosserman, a Justice Department lawyer who who contributed $6,100 to Obama’s political campaigns between 2008 and 2012, was appointed by Obama’s deputies to run the investigation.