NEW YORK — A senior adviser to President Obama mounted a combative defense of the administration Sunday, saying that the controversies enveloping the White House were the result of Republican lawmakers trying to “drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped-up hearings, and false allegations.”
The remarks came from Dan Pfeiffer, a member of the president’s inner circle, as he appeared on all five major Sunday morning talk shows in an effort to move the administration past what commentators have described as a “hell week” of controversy and missteps.
Republicans appearing on the news shows insisted that they would be aggressive in pushing for thorough investigations, particularly on the Internal Revenue Service’s targeted reviews of conservative groups and the lethal attack on a US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, last September.
The administration has promised to cooperate with investigations, but is also fighting to keep the problems from overshadowing its agenda.
The new acting IRS commissioner has ordered a monthlong investigation of the targeting of conservative groups. But Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said that he did not think the IRS review would suffice.
‘Who knew? When did they know? Why did they do this? How high up in government did it go?’ — Rep. Paul Ryan, referring to IRS reviews of conservative groups
“I think a special counsel is going to wind up being necessary,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Pfeiffer on Sunday pointedly rejected Republican criticisms of the president’s actions and leadership style as “offensive” and “absurd,” and he said the administration would not be distracted from doing the nation’s business.
In his appearances, Pfeiffer faced often tough questioning over the furors regarding the IRS and Benghazi matters, and the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ records.
He repeatedly pointed the finger at Republicans for exploiting the three issues for political purposes, even as he urged them to work with the administration on legislation to revamp the immigration system and trim the deficit.
His warning against “fishing expeditions” came when he was asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” about a remark by the White House chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, who had told The New York Times that he had instructed staff not to spend more than 10 percent of their time on the three controversies.
The program’s host, Bob Schieffer, asked whether that meant the White House did not take the issues seriously.
“Oh, no. Absolutely not,” Pfeiffer said. “There are some very serious issues here, particularly the IRS, where there was inexcusable conduct that needs to be fixed. And that’s going to happen.”
But he said that the president and his staff needed to keep “actually doing the people’s work and fighting for the middle class.”
Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, said on “Fox News Sunday” that investigators examining the IRS scandal needed to answer key questions: “Who knew? When did they know? Why did they do this? How high up in government did it go?”
Ryan, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which held an often testy hearing into the IRS matter Friday, said Americans had lost confidence in their government, adding, “This is arrogance of power, abuse of power, to the nth degree.”
Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican who is also on the committee, said an inspector general’s review of the IRS matter that was released last week — it largely blamed ineffective IRS management for the undue scrutiny of Tea Party groups — was “just the beginning of this process.”
Pfeiffer tried to clarify a key point — Ryan’s “when did they know” — about exactly when Obama learned that an IRS unit had given extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. The president’s response to a reporter’s question on Thursday had seemed open to interpretation.
But Pfeiffer said repeatedly Sunday that the president had learned about the matter only weeks ago. That was appropriate, Pfeiffer said, given the importance of insulating the IRS from White House pressures.
Pfeiffer made the administration’s Republican critics the prime target of his anger. “There is no question Republicans are trying to make political hay here,” he said of the IRS scandal.
And regarding Benghazi, he said on Fox, “There’s a series of conspiracy theories the Republicans have been spinning about this since the night it happened.”
When Chris Wallace, the Fox host, pressed Pfeiffer to explain what Obama was doing last Sept. 11, as reports emerged of the attack on the United States mission in Benghazi — specifically whether the president had gone to the Situation Room to monitor events — Pfeiffer dismissed the question as irrelevant and rejected what he said was an implication of presidential inattention.
“The assertions from Republicans here that somehow the president allowed this to happen and didn’t take action is offensive,” Pfeiffer said, adding, “There’s no evidence to support it.”