WASHINGTON - White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and other senior advisers knew in late April that an impending report was likely to say the IRS had inappropriately targeted conservative groups, President Barack Obama's spokesman disclosed Monday, expanding the circle of top officials who knew of the audit beyond those named earlier.
But McDonough and the other advisers say they did not tell Obama, leaving him to learn about the politically perilous results of the internal investigation from news reports nearly three weeks later, officials said.
The decision to keep the president in the dark underscores the White House's cautious legal approach to controversies, as well as an apparent desire by top advisers to distance Obama from troubles threatening his administration.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaks during his daily press briefing Monday in Washington. Carney spoke on various subjects including the several recent scandals.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney defended the decision to keep the president out of the loop on the Internal Revenue Service audit, saying Obama was comfortable with the fact that "some matters are not appropriate to convey to him, and this is one of them."
"It is absolutely a cardinal rule as we see it that we do not intervene in ongoing investigations," Carney said.
Republicans, however, are accusing the president of being unaware of important happenings in the government he oversees.
"It seems to be the answer of the administration whenever they're caught doing something they shouldn't be doing is, 'I didn't know about it'," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. "And it causes me to wonder whether they believe willful ignorance is a defense when it's your job to know."
Obama advisers argue that the outcry from Republicans would be far worse had McDonough or White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler told the president about the IRS audit before it became public, thereby raising questions about White House interference.
Still, the White House's own shifting information about who knew what and when is keeping the focus of the IRS controversy on the West Wing.
When Carney first addressed the matter last week, he said only that Ruemmler had been told around April 22 that an inspector general audit was being concluded at a Cincinnati IRS office that screens applications for organizations' tax-exempt status. He said the audit was described to the counsel's office "very broadly."
But on Monday, Carney said lower-ranking staffers in the White House counsel's office first learned of the report one week earlier, on April 16. He also said that when Ruemmler was later alerted, she was told specifically that the audit was likely to conclude that IRS employees improperly scrutinized organizations. Ruemmler then told McDonough and other senior advisers, but not Obama.
The IRS matter is one of three controversies that have consumed the White House. In each instance, officials have tried to put distance between the president and questionable actions within his administration.