Updated May 16, 2013, 8:41 p.m. ET
The bureaucrats at the Internal Revenue Service did exactly what the president said was the right and honorable thing to do.
Was the White House involved in the IRS's targeting of conservatives? No investigation needed to answer that one. Of course it was.
President Obama and Co. are in full deniability mode, noting that the IRS is an "independent" agency and that they knew nothing about its abuse. The media and Congress are sleuthing for some hint that Mr. Obama picked up the phone and sicced the tax dogs on his enemies.
But that's not how things work in post-Watergate Washington. Mr. Obama didn't need to pick up the phone. All he needed to do was exactly what he did do, in full view, for three years: Publicly suggest that conservative political groups were engaged in nefarious deeds; publicly call out by name political opponents whom he'd like to see harassed; and publicly have his party pressure the IRS to take action.
Mr. Obama now professes shock and outrage that bureaucrats at the IRS did exactly what the president of the United States said was the right and honorable thing to do. "He put a target on our backs, and he's now going to blame the people who are shooting at us?" asks Idaho businessman and longtime Republican donor Frank VanderSloot.
Mr. VanderSloot is the Obama target who in 2011 made a sizable donation to a group supporting Mitt Romney. In April 2012, an Obama campaign website named and slurred eight Romney donors. It tarred Mr. VanderSloot as a "wealthy individual" with a "less-than-reputable record." Other donors were described as having been "on the wrong side of the law."
This was the Obama version of the phone call—put out to every government investigator (and liberal activist) in the land.
Twelve days later, a man working for a political opposition-research firm called an Idaho courthouse for Mr. VanderSloot's divorce records. In June, the IRS informed Mr. VanderSloot and his wife of an audit of two years of their taxes. In July, the Department of Labor informed him of an audit of the guest workers on his Idaho cattle ranch. In September, the IRS informed him of a second audit, of one of his businesses. Mr. VanderSloot, who had never been audited before, was subject to three in the four months after Mr. Obama teed him up for such scrutiny.
The last of these audits was only concluded in recent weeks. Not one resulted in a fine or penalty. But Mr. VanderSloot has been waiting more than 20 months for a sizable refund and estimates his legal bills are $80,000. That figure doesn't account for what the president's vilification has done to his business and reputation.
The Obama call for scrutiny wasn't a mistake; it was the president's strategy—one pursued throughout 2012. The way to limit Romney money was to intimidate donors from giving. Donate, and the president would at best tie you to Big Oil or Wall Street, at worst put your name in bold, and flag you as "less than reputable" to everyone who worked for him: the IRS, the SEC, the Justice Department. The president didn't need a telephone; he had a megaphone.
The same threat was made to conservative groups that might dare play in the election. As early as January 2010, Mr. Obama would, in his state of the union address, cast aspersions on the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, claiming that it "reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests" (read conservative groups).
The president derided "tea baggers." Vice President Joe Biden compared them to "terrorists." In more than a dozen speeches Mr. Obama raised the specter that these groups represented nefarious interests that were perverting elections. "Nobody knows who's paying for these ads," he warned. "We don't know where this money is coming from," he intoned.
In case the IRS missed his point, he raised the threat of illegality: "All around this country there are groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads against Democratic candidates . . . And they don't have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are. You don't know if it's a foreign-controlled corporation."
Short of directly asking federal agencies to investigate these groups, this is as close as it gets. Especially as top congressional Democrats were putting in their own versions of phone calls, sending letters to the IRS that accused it of having "failed to address" the "problem" of groups that were "improperly engaged" in campaigns. Because guess who controls that "independent" agency's budget?
The IRS is easy to demonize, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. It got its heading from a president, and his party, who did in fact send it orders—openly, for the world to see. In his Tuesday press grilling, no question agitated White House Press Secretary Jay Carney more than the one that got to the heart of the matter: Given the president's "animosity" toward Citizens United, might he have "appreciated or wanted the IRS to be looking and scrutinizing those . . ." Mr. Carney cut off the reporter with "That's a preposterous assertion."
Preposterous because, according to Mr. Obama, he is "outraged" and "angry" that the IRS looked into the very groups and individuals that he spent years claiming were shady, undemocratic, even lawbreaking. After all, he expects the IRS to "operate with absolute integrity." Even when he does not.
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A version of this article appeared May 17, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The IRS Scandal Started at the Top.