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Special Report

All-Star Panel: Reaction to Obama's answers on IRS scandal

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," May 16, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you assure the American people that nobody in the White House knew about the agency's actions before your counsel's office found out on April 22? And when they did find out, do you think that you should have learned about it before you learned about it from news reports, as you said, last Friday?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My main concern is fixing a problem. And we began that process yesterday by asking and accepting the resignation of the acting director there.

Let me make sure that I answer your specific question. I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the IG report before the IG report had been leaked through press – through the press.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: President Obama in the rose garden in the rain today answering questions about the IRS scandal. The White House announcing that Dan Werfel will become the new IRS commissioner – he will become the new IRS commissioner next week because the current acting commissioner, who was a apparently fired or forced resignation yesterday, Steven Miller, he will still be in the job for another week. He doesn't leave until the 22nd. In fact, we're told by a close associate of his, quote, "he [Miller] was scheduled to leave the acting commissioner role in early June and to retire a couple of months later anyway. He remains the acting commissioner at least until next week. So the resignation so trumpeted by the president yesterday was mostly theater."

We'll begin there. Let's bring in our panel, Jonah Goldberg, at-large editor of National Review online, Juan Williams, columnist with The Hill, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. OK Jonah?

JONAH GOLDBERG, AT LARGE EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: Well, it was an interesting day. Let me say out front, I am really enjoying the media equivalent of the Arab spring. It's a very exciting time to see the press corps interested in its job all of the sudden.

I don't know that President Obama put much of anything away today. I thought it was very interesting in the piece we saw, he was asked about when he knew or anyone else in the White House knew about these abuses at the IRS, and he answered, well, I didn't know anything about the IG reports until last week. That was not the question that was asked. And it caused a lot of people to perk up their eyebrows and say, well maybe people in the White House actually did know about this quite a bit earlier than they are letting on.  I think that is the kind of things that sort of chummed the water for the White House a little bit.

BAIER: Juan, we tried to get clarification of that. Jay Carney has said that the White House didn't know, but how the president answered it has obviously raised eyebrows across Washington.

JUAN WILLIAMS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE HILL: I think people are looking for any slight thing, any indication here, but it is pretty slim pickings at that point.

I think what you heard from the president today, he took several questions, was a real sense that when it comes to the IRS, he feels he has taken action to begin a process to repair the damage that's been done in terms of the trust with the American people, trust that was breached for people on the left and right, and the idea that the IRS would be used in political terms.

I think the larger story here about Miller and the fact that he's not leaving for another week. Look, he was the acting commissioner, he was the guy in power, so he's the target for any reprimand, and obviously he's been reprimanded. His name is now associated with this scandal.

BAIER: But, you have to concede that it is not too much of a reprimand if he was going to leave the IRS anyway.

WILLIAMS: No, he was the acting commissioner; they didn't have a full commissioner.

BAIER: He's still the acting commissioner Juan.

WILLIAMS: So he's acting commissioner for a few days. I mean if you wanted to go back in time --

BAIER: No, he's still the acting commissioner until next Wednesday.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, for the next few days. So if you wanted to go back in time, you would have to go back to when this scandal started and then you had another IRS commissioner. That guy is gone. What we'll see is Miller will be up on Capitol Hill tomorrow. So, I think people want answers.

BAIER: My point is, for all of the characterization that it was this big move and then we had the East Room announcement, the guy was going to leave his post in early June and he was going to leave the IRS a couple of months later. It seems that --

WILLIAMS: Well, who else are they going to fire?

(CROSSTALK)

BAIER: There you go, there's the answer --

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDBERG: Lois Lerner?

(CROSSTALK)

BAIER: Lois Lerner is still in her position. Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: The firing was a farce.  It was the minimum he could do, it turned out it really didn't have any meaning. And that is not the guy who's behind all this. If you want to win back the trust of the American people, you have to answer the question, where did these Cincinnati guys and people in Washington get the idea or the authorization, the instruction, who knows? Did they wake up in the morning and decide we're going to target the Tea Party all on their own? This is highly implausible.

I agree with what Jonah said. The president's answer to that question -- it wasn't Nixonian, it was Clintonian. He was being asked did anybody in the White House know? He doesn't answer the "anybody in White House," he says just "I." If there was nobody in the White House he should have said nobody knew. He said just "I."  And he didn't say -- he was asked about the IRS actions, he didn't say I didn't know about the IRS actions. He says I didn't know about the IG report. Well, if you didn't know about any of this, never heard any complaints, then he would have said I didn't know anything about this at all.

The IG is a peculiar answer by a guy who has now -- we have seen for weeks now, he and his folks have been parsing words in a way that make Clinton look unsophisticated. So I think it really is a question.

And the other question which he did not answer, if his own counsel learns about this three weeks before, how can the counsel -- when any of us heard about this, we knew instantly it's a massive scandal. So his counsel hears about this and doesn't tell the president for three weeks about what is obviously a massive scandal?

BAIER: So White House communication director Dan Pfeiffer was on CNN just moments ago and said they did find out and learned IG was investigating the IRS three weeks ago, not the details, just an investigation was taking place. They only acted when they got all of the information. They weren't going to rely on hearsay or media reports and didn't tell the president.

GOLDBERG: I want to back up a little bit on this. Imagine the counterfactual.  Imagine if progressive groups or gay groups or black civil rights groups were going to their congressmen and their senators and going to The New York Times saying we are persecuted by the IRS going back two years. Does anybody believe that the White House would spend two years rolling their eyes, saying nothing is going on there, no one would pick up the phone and try to get to the bottom of this?

It's interesting what Dan Pfeiffer has to say for the last three weeks. But it's because it was the Tea Party and conservatives that the New York Times editorial board essentially celebrated the discrimination against these groups. If it had been almost any other member of the political firmament, the White House would have done more to actually get to the bottom and find out what was going on.

BAIER: Juan, the final word on this. Come on, Dan Pfeiffer saying that they didn't tell the president because they wanted to wait for more details.  But if you hear that the IG is investigating the IRS on something as explosive as this, doesn't somebody in a meeting somewhere say, hey, boss, we've got something that may hit the fan at some point?

WILLIAMS: I don't know. I am not in there. But I got to tell you --

BAIER: But --

WILLIAMS: Let me tell you as a matter of common sense, I am kind of taken aback by this, because I think the idea of IRS would be involved in politics is indefensible.

But let say, I am taken aback by the conversation tonight, because it's as if the Supreme Court never ruled on Citizens United and changed the rules so that all these very political groups could apply for a 501C4 status and then use it to not disclose donors and to become involved in political activities. And that's what the IRS was after. They were engaged in trying to impose rules at a time when it was the wild, wild west out there.

(CROSSTALK)

KRAUTHAMMER: But only on the right.

WILLIAMS: No, they were doing it specifically –

(CROSSTALK)

WILLIAMS: First of all, no one got denied any tax exempt status. But secondly, overwhelmingly the applications were coming from the right, Charles.

KRAUTHAMMER: They denied nobody on the left --

WILLIAMS: They denied no one on the right.

(CROSSTALK)

WILLIAMS: They denied nobody. 

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDBERG: Justice delayed is justice denied. If you're forming a group to inform people about an election, and then you say, well we're going to kick the can down the road two election cycles down later.
   
WILLIAMS: Again, this is a small number given the number of applications.

GOLDBERG: There was one guy who filed for approval, it took him 17 months.  He gave up and then he reapplied with another group called Greenhouse Solutions and he got it in three weeks. There is clearly a discrimination going on against certain groups.

WILLIAMS: They were trying to impose rules on a lawless system with no rules.

(CROSSTALK)

BAIER: If you're targeting Tea Party and Patriot --

(CROSSTALK)

WILLIAMS: They were wrong to, in fact, use Tea Party and Patriot because then it became applied simply to conservative groups instead of to everybody, it should have been everybody, because the system was haywire at that point.

KRAUTHAMMER: I do not understand your point.

WILLIAMS: The point is --

KRAUTHAMMER: They were discriminating against people on the right to make them wait a year or two or three and that is not overt ideological discrimination?

WILLIAMS: It was not. Again I say, it is not right to do it politically, but the fact is that you had overwhelmingly --

BAIER: Full stop.

WILLIAMS: Excuse me?

BAIER: Period, full stop. It is not right to do politically.

WILLIAMS: Correct.

BAIER: Or legally.

WILLIAMS: No, that's why we are all here having this discussion. But again, the context is the Supreme Court ruling and the fact that there were no rules for these 501C3 organizations.

BAIER: OK, that was a heated discussion. We'll continue to talk about the other scandals brewing after this break. Not a lot of time left, though. 

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