GOP to Darrell Issa: Cool it
By: John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman
June 6, 2013 04:57 AM EDT
Shortly after Darrell Issa dubbed Jay Carney a “paid liar” on CNN last Sunday, House Republican leadership staffers called the California Republican’s aides with a message: Cool it.
Issa’s aides promptly responded: The remark was over the top, they agreed, according to sources familiar with the interaction.
But Issa himself is unbowed. In an interview with POLITICO, he again accused the White House of being less than truthful on key subjects — while avoiding the word “liar” — and refused to apologize for his Carney broadside.
“In this case, you have an administration where what they say initially and what turns out to be the truth continues to evolve,” Issa said. “And I don’t think they’d question that.”
Issa added that “the White House has tried to vilify me rather than getting into the facts.”
Internal discussion has continued all week about Issa’s outburst at President Barack Obama’s top spokesman. Top Republicans have privately quizzed Issa’s friends and members of his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about how exactly Issa could slip up at such an inopportune time.
GOP leaders are concerned that the sometimes unpredictable chairman could jeopardize the biggest gift handed to them in months — public outrage over the IRS scandal, combined with questions over Benghazi. They think Issa should stop personalizing the scandals by insulting Obama and his aides and focus on the facts.
House Republicans, however, aren’t urging Issa to pull his punches on the substance of the controversies. They just want him to tone down his brash style and stop the personal attacks.
Issa’s behavior came up at meetings of GOP leaders several times this week, according to sources involved. The first time complaints surfaced — and where the frustration with Issa was most clearly expressed — was in a small Monday meeting of the House GOP leadership.
Since then, Issa has not appeared on television — a development Republican leadership has welcomed.
“He has made this personal,” one senior Republican told POLITICO. “He’s added an unnecessary element to the news cycle.”
“When you make Jay Carney the issue, that’s the problem,” said another senior House GOP leadership aide. “No one cares about Jay Carney. That’s a sideshow; it’s not the real issue.”
On Wednesday, Issa brushed off the internal GOP complaints about his Carney tirade. He insisted he wasn’t aware of the naysaying.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Issa told POLITICO, referring to any discussions with GOP leadership.
Asked repeatedly about the Carney remarks, Issa declined to comment directly. A very measured, deliberate Issa didn’t back down from the substance of his charge against the White House spokesman or apologize for it. But he wouldn’t mention Carney’s name again either.
“What is said by the White House directly or indirectly — there are people who speak on behalf of the president in many ways — has often been an evolving truth,” Issa said in an interview. “Meaning the original statement and the final truth have very little in common. Benghazi certainly would be a good example. The IRS scandal is certainly a good example.”
As Issa continues to aggressively pursue a wide-ranging investigation into the Obama administration, his freewheeling style has benefits and liabilities for House Republicans.
House GOP leaders are pleased with the substance of Issa’s probes into Benghazi and the IRS targeting of conservative groups. But they worry that Issa’s brash style and loose lips threaten what they believe should be a tight narrative focused on out-of-control bureaucrats and poor — or nonexistent — leadership from Obama.
During a May 14 appearance on CBS’s “This Morning,” for instance, Issa claimed the IRS scandal was a secret political operation designed to benefit Obama’s reelection campaign, explosive allegations that have not been backed up by existing evidence. “This was the targeting of the president’s political enemies effectively and lies about it during the election year, so that it wasn’t discovered until afterwards,” Issa claimed.
Democrats dismiss Issa as a political hatchet man more interested in headlines than truth, and many blame the media for being complicit in those efforts.
“This is a classic Issa thing where we conclude in advance what happened, and then we try to make the facts fit,” complained Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the Oversight panel and vocal Issa critic. “He cherry-picks evidence, he leaks to the press, he makes charges on Sunday shows that always get a headline because you people [the media] are hopelessly compliant. … He cynically understands the press will be compliant, and it doesn’t matter whether he can substantiate what he alleges.”
But this time, Issa has earned the ire of Republican leadership with personal broadsides against the president and his aides.
Personal attacks like the Carney remarks can derail the IRS investigation, these sources argue — and they say the attacks need to stop. It’s a trap Issa has fallen into before and gives Democrats an opening to discredit the chairman. These criticisms have been delivered clearly to Issa, according to these GOP sources.
The Carney episode — which Republicans hope is isolated but fear might not be — starkly displays the challenges Republicans face in maintaining the scandals as a political plus.
For the first few weeks, Republicans saw the Oversight hearings as a gift — no one likes the IRS, dead diplomats in Libya or the government snooping on reporters. But one misstep — like referring to a White House press secretary as a “paid liar” — could cause the effort to backfire.
While Obama is a tempting target for Republicans approaching a midterm election, the GOP must look like it’s doing more than personally attacking a popular president instead of promoting a positive legislative agenda.
“I’ve come to expect this, it doesn’t surprise me at all” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight panel. “I’m going to concentrate on the facts and not concentrate on anything that’s going to take me away from that.”
In the coming days and weeks, Issa faces key tests that could help determine both his political future, and the political sustainability of his investigations.
Will Issa release a full, unedited transcript of the interviews of IRS employees conducted by his panel? As of now, Issa has declined to do so, although partial transcripts were released for his Sunday show appearance, which infuriated Democrats.
On Thursday, Issa is hauling IRS officials to the Capitol to discuss what he considers lavish spending on conferences at the agency. Appearing in front of his committee will be Inspector General J. Russell George; Gregory Kutz, assistant inspector general for audit; Faris Fink, commissioner of the small business and self-employed division; and Danny Werfel, acting commissioner of the IRS.
Cummings said Democrats aren’t going to let up on the IRS, telling POLITICO the conference spending and behavior are “indefensible.”
There have also been important developments in the Benghazi investigation this week, according to lawmakers in both parties.
Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who led the State Department-ordered investigation into the attack for the Obama administration, gave emotional closed-door testimony on Tuesday in front of Issa’s panel that stretched out over eight hours, sources said.
Pickering said that he was very close to U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stephens, who was killed in the Benghazi attacks. At the age of 81, Pickering said, he has no incentive to cover anything up, these sources said.
Democrats walked away from the testimony thinking they struck political gold, and if Issa allows Pickering to testify in public, the Benghazi issue will be put to bed. Republicans say Pickering repeatedly referred to the White House in his testimony, and there were many holes the GOP could exploit.
Issa said “no one should talk about content” of the private deposition but added that “Ambassador Pickering is a 42-year career diplomat with a spotless record. We have questions about the quality of the [Accountability Review Board] process, not him.”
There are two coming clashes between Issa and the Obama administration.
On Friday, Issa’s subpoena comes due to obtain more documents relating to the Benghazi talking points. And there are currently intense negotiations between the State Department and Issa’s team to talk to 13 of the department’s employees. State has offered some interviews but is restricting scheduling, according to sources involved.