President condemns agency's targeting of "Tea Party" groups' applications for tax-exempt status, but pushes back against "political motivations" in Benghazi inquiry.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday called reports that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups "outrageous" and said anyone responsible should be held accountable. He also pushed back strongly against fresh Republican criticism of the administration's handling of last year's deadly Benghazi attacks in Libya, calling it a political "sideshow."
The president was dogged by the persisting political controversies as he tended to diplomatic duties during a visit with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Obama acknowledged that people are properly concerned about the IRS' admission that conservative political groups were targeted during the 2012 campaign to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status. But he angrily dismissed continued questions over September's insurgent attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
"There's no there there," Obama said. "The fact that this keeps on getting churned up, frankly, has a whole lot to do with political motivations."
Cameron and Obama had a meeting in the Oval Office before appearing before the media in the East Room of the White House to take questions.
The two leaders said they had discussed several pressing international issues, including the Mideast peace process, trade and preparations for a coming summit of the world's leading industrial nations in Northern Ireland. They said they were committed to working together to keep pressure on Syria's President Bashar Assad and to assist the opposition in a protracted civil war.
Cameron said, "There is no more urgent international task."
Domestically, Obama is facing heat at the start of his second term on several fronts.
The IRS, an independent agency in the Treasury Department, apologized Friday for what it acknowledged was "inappropriate" targeting of conservative political groups. The agency blamed low-level employees, saying no high-level officials were aware.
But a draft of an inspector general's report obtained by The Associated Press says senior IRS officials knew agents were targeting Tea Party groups as early as 2011. The Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration is expected to release the final report this week after a yearlong investigation.
The portion of the draft report reviewed by the AP does not say whether anyone in the Obama administration outside the IRS was informed of the targeting.
Obama said he first learned about the matter from news reports last week.
"If in fact IRS persons engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous and there's no place for it," Obama said. "And they have to be held fully accountable."
He said the IRS must operate with absolute integrity and apply laws without partisanship.
"I've got no patience with it," he said. "I will not tolerate it, and we will find out exactly what happened."
On Sunday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she was disappointed that Obama "hasn't personally condemned this." The president, Collins said, "needs to make crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable."
IRS targeting broader than Tea Party?
Collins and other Republicans challenged the tax agency's claim that the practice was initiated by low-level workers.
"I just don't buy that this was a couple of rogue IRS employees," said Collins. "After all, groups with 'progressive' in their names were not targeted similarly."
If it were just a small number of employees, she said, "then you would think that the high-level IRS supervisors would have rushed to make this public, fired the employees involved, apologized to the American people and informed Congress. None of that happened in a timely way."
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, called on Monday for the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, who was a deputy commissioner at the time of the agency misconduct. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Rubio called on Lew and President Barack Obama to demand Miller's resignation, saying, it "is clear the IRS cannot operate with even a shred of the American people's confidence under the current leadership," Reuters reports. (The actual IRS commissioner during the time the targeting of political groups took place, Douglas Shulman, was an appointee of President George W. Bush who Obama kept onboard and who resigned in November of last year.)
The Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration is expected to release the results of a nearly yearlong investigation in the coming week.
Lois G. Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, said last week that the practice was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias.
But on June 29, 2011, Lerner learned at a meeting that groups were being targeted, according to the watchdog's report. At the meeting, she was told that groups with "Tea Party," ''patriot" or "9/12 Project" in their names were being flagged for additional and often burdensome scrutiny, the report says.
The 9/12 Project is a group started by conservative TV personality Glenn Beck.
Obama's response on Benghazi comes after disclosure last week of emails that the administration had turned over to congressional investigators. They show that political considerations influenced the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used five days after the Sept. 11 assault, with State Department and other senior administration officials asking that references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted.
The White House has insisted that it made only a "stylistic" change to the intelligence agency talking points from which Rice suggested on five Sunday talk shows that demonstrations over an anti-Islamic video devolved into the Benghazi attack.
Obama said the focus should be on making sure that diplomats serving around the world are adequately protected, which he acknowledged those in Benghazi were not.
"The whole issue of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow," Obama said.
"If anybody out there wants to actually focus on how we make sure something like this doesn't happen again, I'm happy to get their advice and counsel," Obama said.
The Associated Press, Reuters, and MSN News contributed to this report.