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A Timely Reminder—What did the President Know…?

July 7, 2014


Former Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) passed away last week at the age of 88. Although Sen. Baker served as Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff, and Senate Majority Leader, he is perhaps best known for his famous line asked during the Watergate investigation: “My primary thesis is still, what did the president know, and when did he know it?” Given the number of scandals facing the Obama administration today, this question has a haunting quality, not only for President Richard Nixon but also for President Barack Obama.

What did President Obama know, and when did he know it?

“What’s forgotten today is that Baker thought he was protecting Nixon with that line,” writes Peter Grier for the Christian Science Monitor. “He was attempting to wall off the president from the actions of aides who might have done something wrong.”

In contrast, The Washington Post quotes Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker as saying “The fact he [Baker] acted as impartially as he did is one of the high points of his career.”

President Obama has frequently taken a cue from the same playbook as Nixon, blaming aides and government bureaucrats, as well as the media, instead of taking responsibility for the many scandals plaguing his administration.

Obama has claimed repeatedly that he learns about scandals from the press, including the IRS scandal, Fast & Furious, and the subpoenaing of two months of phone records from the Associated Press. More recently, he said he learned about the Veterans Affairs waiting list scandal from the press.

Jonathan Turley, a liberal law professor who has supported the presidency and policies of Barack Obama, recently wrote a column titled “A Question of Power: The Imperial Presidency,” in which he said that “Obama may be the president Nixon always wanted to be.”

“Four decades ago,” wrote Turley, “Nixon was halted in his determined effort to create an imperial presidency with unilateral powers and privileges. But in 2013, Obama wields those very same powers openly and without serious opposition.” 

President Obama’s former Press Secretary Jay Carney got “egg on his face” when it “emerged this morning that his [Obama’s] transition team was notified five years ago about how VA medical centers' official wait-list times bore little resemblance to reality and risked denying military heroes critical health care,” reported the UK Daily Mail. It should be reporting that President Obama has egg on his face, and has been caught in another lie.

In the case of the IRS scandal we know that both the White House Chief of Staff and White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmlerlearned about the targeting of conservative groups in April of 2013, a month before the now infamous Lois Lerner planted a question regarding the IRS’ abusive actions. President Obama later claimed on national television that in terms of the IRS scandal, there wasn’t a “smidgeon of corruption” in his administration, and blamed the whole episode on “bone-headed decisions” of bureaucrats.

But rather than being the guileless incompetence of Cincinnati office bureaucrats, the investigation into the IRS targeting scandal keeps casting a wider and wider net. It’s not surprising that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) recently said on Fox Newsthat “It’s a scandal of epic proportions, big enough that it could bring down a presidency.” But it is surprising when Time magazine’s Mark Halperin said this week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that “I think with a different administration, one that was a Republican administration, this story would be a national obsession, and, instead, it’s getting coverage here and a few other places. But it deserves a lot more questions.”

One might argue that Republicans are just looking for material to use against their Democratic opponents in the upcoming election, but consider the following: recently released emailsshow that the D.C. office was plugged into the process of targeting conservatives early on.

In addition, “The IRS recently revealed that former director Lois Lerner’s emails were lost when her computer crashed, wiping out an untold number of emails that were being sought by congressional investigators for her role in the agency’s controversy that they improperly scrutinized applications by some Tea Party groups,” reported CBS DC. The hard drive wasrecycled, so the data cannot be recovered. And an “untold number” of Lerner’s emails “are gone.”

What did the President know, and when did he know it? Did he know that Lerner’s emails were gone before the news broke initially in May of 2013?

As for the Veterans Affairs office, how much was Obama briefed on when his transition team took over? “In particular, the 2008 transition report referred to a VA inspector general recommendation to test the accuracy of reported waiting times,” reported The Washington Times. And, a presidential briefing accessed by the Times states that “Audits of outpatient scheduling and patient waiting times completed since 2005 have identified noncompliance with the policies and procedures for scheduling, inaccurate reporting of patient waiting times and errors in [electronic waiting lists].”

In other words, the President knew quite a lot, and he knew it since 2008.

The Washington Times’ reporting resulted from a Freedom of Information Act request, as did the IRS emails referenced above. So, too, did the creation of the Select Committee on Benghazi. Speaker John Boehner decided to allow a vote to create the Select Committee, which will likely begin work this fall, after it was revealed that a FOIA request made by Judicial Watch revealed information that had been withheld from Congress by the administration.

The facts of the Benghazi scandal prompt the question as well: What did the President know, and when did he know it?

In the case of Susan Rice, who appeared on the Sunday talk shows blaming the attack on a YouTube video, the “smoking gun” email from Ben Rhodes to other staff indicates that the administration considered blaming the attack on the video a high priority. Rice maintains that she was making an assertion based on intelligence community information available at the time; even Michael Morell, former acting head of the CIA, testified that the CIA had made no mention of the YouTube video in its talking points.

Closed door briefings which were later released to the public reveal that President Obama was briefed the night of the attack that it was a terrorist attack, and emails made public show that State Department officials knew that Ansar al Sharia had claimed credit the night of the attack. It is becoming increasingly clear who knew what, and when.

President Obama reportedly had a 10 p.m. phone call with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, just minutes before she released a statement which condemned the YouTube video.

As the Select Committee on Benghazi ramps up its investigation, which has already been likened to Watergate, it should keep the words of Howard Baker in mind. One of the Democrats assigned to the Committee should be willing to repeat this memorable moment by asking, concretely, “My primary thesis is still, what did the President know, and when did he know it?”
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