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WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15:  U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) attends the 2012 Fiscal Summit on May 15, 2012 in Washington, DC. The third annual summit, held by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, explored the theme "America's Case for Action." (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images) Let's be reasonable: First the trial, and then the hanging.

the national interest

Moderate Rob Portman Not Quite Ready to Impeach

We all know that Rush Limbaugh and Michele Bachmann are saying crazy things like it's their job, because it is their job. But at this point in the story, it's worth checking in with the sane wing of the party, such as it is. What say you,  Senator Rob Portman?

A cloud of question, he adds, continues to hang over the White House.

“The American people have been betrayed in fundamental ways by the most powerful agency in government,” he tells me. “What kind of direction were these employees getting from the administration? It seems unlikely that people would target groups based on their ideology without some direction.”

Well, the administration has said categorically that it never suggested in any way that the IRS target conservative groups. And an independent auditor within the agency, the Inspector General for Tax Administration, agreed:

We asked the Acting Commissioner, Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division; the Director, EO; and Determinations Unit personnel if the criteria were influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS. All of these officials stated that the criteria were not influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS.

The Inspector General for Tax Administration is not just a bunch of flunkies:

In organizational terms, the Inspector General for Tax Administration comes under the ambit of the Treasury Department. But it is independent of the Department and all other agencies located therein. Since 2004, it has been headed by J. Russell George, a native of Brooklyn and a former prosecutor in Queens, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. The lead author of the report, Gregory D. Kutz, is a career public servant and forensic auditor who used to work for the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Is it possible the administration is lying about this? Sure, it’s possible. It’s also possible Portman is lying, and he secretly directed the IRS to target conservatives — knowing it would blow up to create a scandal he could use to foment wild charges against the administration. Is it possible that this all went on in a huge office in Cincinnati, Portman’s home state, without his knowledge? There is zero evidence, however, for either proposition.

Portman did go so far as to call impeachment “premature,” which is quite a concession given the complete lack of evidence Obama did anything at all wrong. That sort of caution is what marks Portman as a judicious elder statesman within his party.

But the framing of his questions strongly suggests that he will accept only answers that prove Obama’s guilt. And it’s depressingly evident that no imaginable evidence will persuade Portman to abandon the conclusion he has already settled upon. Independent exoneration didn’t dissuade conservatives from their certainty that climate scientists have been engineering an elaborate hoax. Nothing even resembling evidence was required to convince Jack Welch — a respected establishmentarian — that the Bureau of Labor Statistics was faking its fall jobs report. It’s not even news when an ascendant figure like Rand Paul claims Obama is helping “anti-American globalists plot against our Constitution.” You have to go to marginal figures on the far left like Oliver Stone to find the equivalent of the sort of paranoia that passes among the most mainstream members of the GOP. The sorry thing is that Portman actually is one of the less crazy Republicans.

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Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images