IRS chief sacked as Republicans try to blame White House for tax scandal
Damage-limitation exercise unlikely to placate Obama's enemies as they think they smell blood
The US's top tax official has been fired as President Barack Obama tries to stem a rising tide of criticism over the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS's) targeting of conservative groups for special scrutiny.
With three congressional probes of the IRS looming and Republicans' calls for firings at the agency growing louder, Obama said he told Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to demand the resignation of acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller. Lew had done so, the president said.
"I'll do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this happens again by holding the responsible parties accountable, [and] by putting in place new checks and new safeguards," Obama said on Wednesday at the White House.
His remarks came on a day during which he tried to regain the initiative amid a series of controversies that have threatened his second-term agenda. The president said new leadership was needed at the IRS to restore public confidence in the tax agency, whose reputation for political independence has taken a hit because of scandal.
"Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it," Obama said. "I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour 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."
The IRS revelations have added to a sense of a White House under siege and a president struggling to recover his political footing in the face of fast-moving events.
Republicans continue to attack the administration's handling of deadly attack by militants last year on the US diplomatic mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi. And on Monday, the Justice Department came under fire for seizing phone records of journalists from the Associated Press as part of a criminal probe into intelligence leaks.
Obama spoke after meeting with senior Treasury officials to find ways to quell the growing uproar after a government report found that poor management led to an "inappropriate" focus on claims by conservative groups for tax-exempt status.
Obama, who had been accused by Republican critics of reacting too passively to the scandal, promised to work "hand in hand" with Congress to fix the IRS. But he acknowledged the realities of a politically divided Washington, and urged lawmakers to deal with the matter in a way that does not "smack of politics or partisan agendas".
Republicans have signaled, however, that they are not satisfied with Miller's resignation and that they are determined to find out whether the White House encouraged, or knew about, the effort within the tax agency to single out conservative groups for more scrutiny.
Several, including Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, also complained they were misled by Miller and another top IRS official, Lois Lerner, over whether the agency had targeted conservative groups.
In a message to colleagues after Obama's announcement, Miller said that there was a "strong and immediate need" to restore public trust in the nation's tax agency.
"This has been an incredibly difficult time for the IRS given the events of the past few days," Miller wrote.
Miller, a veteran IRS bureaucrat who took over as the agency's temporary chief six months ago, is still due to testify on Friday before the House Ways and Means Committee, the first of three congressional panels to hold hearings on the IRS scandal. The Justice Department has launched a criminal probe.