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Aides tried to shield Obama from IRS probe

As soon as White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler heard about an upcoming inspector general’s report on the Internal Revenue Service, she knew she had a problem.

The notice Ruemmler saw April 24 gave her a thumbnail sketch of a disturbing finding: that the IRS had improperly targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups. She shared the news with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior White House aides, who all recognized the danger of the findings.

But they agreed that it would be best not to share it with President Obama until the independent audit was completed and made public, in part to protect him from the appearance of trying to influence an investigation.

This account of how the White House tried to deal with the IRS inquiry – based on documents, public statements and interviews with multiple senior officials, including one directly involved in the discussions – shows how carefully Obama’s top aides were trying to shield him from any second-term scandal that might swamp his agenda or, worse, jeopardize his presidency.

The episode also offers a glimpse into the workings of Obama’s insular West Wing, which has struggled to cope in recent weeks with the IRS scandal, the continued fallout from last year’s deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s journalist tracking.

But Ruemmler and McDonough’s careful plan for the IRS was upended May 10, when Lois Lerner, a senior official at the agency, broke the news by admitting that the IRS had given extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Yesterday, Lerner, who led the IRS tax-exempt unit at the center of the scandal, insisted that she did nothing wrong and invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during an appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. She said that members of the panel had already falsely accused her of providing false information to Congress.

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