White House On Defense Over IRS Audits, Benghazi

At a news conference in the White House East Room on Monday, President Obama responded to criticism surrounding the IRS targeting conservative groups and the administration editing talking points about September's terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. The Obama administration is playing defense on multiple fronts. One topic, the IRS; officials there have admitted they targeted conservative groups that were applying for tax-exempt status. The other issue is Benghazi. Republicans are once again hammering the White House for editing talking points about last September's deadly attack in Libya.

Well, today, President Obama responded to both controversies in different ways. NPR's Ari Shapiro was there, in the White House East Room, as the president spoke to reporters.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama is hosting British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House today. A news conference is traditional in these sorts of visits. Shortly before this one started, White House officials said the president would take only question from the American press. Given the number of controversies facing the White House right now, it became a multipart question. President Obama addressed the controversy at the IRS first.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If, in fact, IRS personnel 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.

SHAPIRO: This accusation comes from an inspector general report set to be released this week. A draft sent to Congress says IRS officials gave extra scrutiny to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status. They also scrutinized organizations with small-government aims, even groups with "patriot" in their names. The criticism has been intense, and conservative groups are threatening to sue the IRS. On Friday, a top IRS official apologized. In the East Room this morning, Obama said these allegations should concern people of any party.

OBAMA: At some point, there are going to be Republican administrations. At some point, there are going to be Democratic ones. Either way, you don't want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased and anything less than neutral, in terms of how they operate.

SHAPIRO: On the IRS, Obama adopted Republican outrage as his own. But on the issue of Benghazi, the president redirected his critics' rage back at them.

OBAMA: The whole thing defies logic.

SHAPIRO: Emails show that the White House revised talking points about last September's attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Those revisions took out references to Islamic extremists. Republicans call it a cover-up, but President Obama said members of Congress first reviewed those emails months ago.

OBAMA: And suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there's something new to the story. There's no there, there.

SHAPIRO: He said his critics are trying to win political points; and he called the debate over talking points a sideshow, saying the discussion should focus on how to keep diplomats safe.

OBAMA: We dishonor them when, you know, we turn things like this into a political circus.

SHAPIRO: The final subject in this mini news conference was Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron described the situation this way.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Eighty thousand dead; 5 million people forced from their homes - Syria's history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch.

SHAPIRO: Last week, the U.S. and Russia agreed to arrange an international peace conference with representatives from Bashar al-Assad's government and the rebels. That's significant because in the past, Russia has stood in the way of some American efforts on Syria. Obama expressed hope that the international community will come together to end the conflict, but he acknowledged that the chance for a peaceful political transition may be gone.

OBAMA: Frankly, sometimes once - sort of the furies have been unleashed in a situation like we're seeing in Syria, it's very hard to put things back together.

SHAPIRO: President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron will meet in person again just next month, at the G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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