WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday ousted the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service and pledged to work with Congress to investigate the agency’s improper targeting of conservative groups, an attempt to contain the boiling controversy with decisive action.
“I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives,” Obama said in a brief statement in the East Room at the White House. “It’s important to institute new leadership.”
An inspector general’s report released this week found that the IRS improperly targeted conservative and Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny when they applied to become charitable organizations. Obama said that, after he demanded to know who was responsible, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had sought and received the resignation of the IRS acting commissioner, Steven Miller.
“Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I’m angry about it,” Obama said. “It should not matter what political stripe you’re from. The fact of the matter is, is that the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity.”
The announcement came at the end of a day when the White House sought to gain control of several controversies that have practically paralyzed Washington, energized the president’s Republican opponents in Congress, and threatened to stall his agenda early in his second term.
About an hour before Obama’s statement about the removal of the commissioner, the administration took the extraordinary step of releasing 100 pages of internal e-mails that reveal how top officials shaped the public talking points following the attacks on the consulate last Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Libya.
Those e-mails, which Republicans have been requesting for weeks, show a back-and-forth between the CIA and the State Department over how politicians should characterize the assault, which killed four Americans, including an ambassador.
The release of the e-mails was intended to mute criticism that the White House tried to edit the talking points in a way that downplayed the possibility of a terrorist act several months before Obama faced reelection.
“This release is long overdue, and there are relevant documents the administration has still refused to produce,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “We hope, however, that this limited release of documents is a sign of more cooperation to come.”
Separately, Attorney General Eric Holder spent much of the afternoon on Capitol Hill, getting grilled by members of a House committee in testimony that produced tense exchanges over a number of issues, including the Justice Department’s decision to secretly seize phone records of Associated Press journalists.
Meanwhile, the White House said it was renewing support of a federal shield law, which would protect journalists from having to reveal their sources. Depending on how a new shield law is written, however, it might not have prevented the seizure of AP’s phone records.
The most widely condemned controversy, however, has centered on the IRS. Obama first expressed frustration and anger several days after Lois Lerner, the official who oversees the tax exempt groups, apologized Friday at a legal conference for targeting conservative groups.
A report released by the Treasury Department’s inspector general on Tuesday found that the agency had used “inappropriate criteria” to evaluate the political groups applying for charitable, tax-exempt status.
A unit within the IRS came up with a database of organizations for which workers were to be on the “lookout.” The criteria they used to find those organizations searched for keywords in their names, such as “tea party” or “patriot” or “9/12 Project.”
They also sought groups that were focused on issues such as government spending, debt or taxes, or educating people on ways to “make America a better place to live.”
The organizations singled out were required to submit more information and they faced delays that lasted years in some cases.
The IRS admission and the inspector general’s report created a firestorm. The White House said that it was not involved in the decision to target conservative groups and that the president was unaware of the practice until Friday’s news reports. But the furor only increased this week, with bipartisan calls for investigations and action and an increasingly more pointed response from the White House.
“The IRS admitted to targeting conservatives,” Boehner said Wednesday morning. “My question isn’t about who is going to resign. My question is: Who’s going to jail over this scandal?”
Holder revealed a criminal investigation of the IRS on Tuesday. While testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, he said one potential criminal violation could be making false statements. Lawmakers have charged that IRS officials made false or misleading statements to them while they were making inquiries last summer into whether conservative groups had been targeted.
“False-statement violations might have been made, given at least what I know at this point,” Holder said.
Miller took over the IRS post in November, when Commissioner Douglas Shulman, who had been appointed by President George W. Bush, completed his five-year term.
In a note to IRS staff on Wednesday, Miller said he would leave his position in June.
‘‘This has been an incredibly difficult time for the IRS given the events of the past few days, and there is a strong and immediate need to restore public trust in the nation’s tax agency,’’ Miller wrote, adding “It is with regret” that he is leaving.
Obama pledged to work with Congress and institute new safeguards and oversight, in part by implementing a series of recommendations in the inspector general’s report. Those include providing better documentation for which groups should be audited, resolving cases more quickly, and issuing new training guidelines for employees.
“The good news is it’s fixable,” Obama said. “And it’s in everyone’s best interest to work together to fix it.”
Some in Congress have criticized the administration for not being more forthcoming and not doing more to work with it to provide information.
“More than two years after the problem began, and a year after the IRS told us there was no problem, the president is beginning to take action,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. “If the president is as concerned about this issue as he claims, he’ll work openly and transparently with Congress to get to the bottom of the scandal — no stonewalling, no half-answers, no withholding of witnesses.”
Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, said on CNN that the president “set exactly the right tone.”
“We very much take him at his word that he wants to be open and transparent,” said Issa, who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Issa’s committee, as well as the House Ways and Means Committee and several others, are planning hearings.
The first is scheduled for Friday, and Miller is set to testify.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.