John McCain and those newly released Lois Lerner emails

According to Judicial Watch, documents it has released show that top staffers from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee met with Lois Lerner and others in a “marathon” meeting to discuss concerns raised by Senators John McCain and Carl Levin that IRS was not reining in political advocacy groups in response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The meeting took place 11 days prior to Lerner’s admission at an ABA meeting that the IRS had inappropriately targeted conservative groups.

Judicial Watch’s report is a useful reminder that McCain, author of the McCain-Feingold legislation, is terrible on this particular issue of free speech. However, it looks to me like some media outlets are overstating what the documents reveal.

The Washington Examiner says: “Sens. McCain and Levin urged IRS to target Tea Party, conservative groups.” Politistick declares: “BREAKING: John McCain Pressured Obama IRS’s Lois Lerner to Attack Tea Party Conservatives.”

But Judicial Watch does not claim that the documents demonstrate that McCain’s staff called for the “targeting” of conservatives or for “attacking” them in particular. It states: “Documents reveal that Lerner was pressured by both Democrat Sen. Carl Levin and Republican Senator John McCain for IRS action against political advocacy groups.” Amplifying on this headline, Judicial Watch adds:

[Lerner] met with select top staffers from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in a “marathon” meeting to discuss concerns raised by both Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that the IRS was not reining in political advocacy groups in response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

From looking at emails, it’s not even clear to me that they show pressure by Senate staffers to rein in political advocacy groups. However, it’s quite possible that this occurred during the six hour meeting in question.

But reining in political advocacy groups is not the same thing as targeting conservative groups. The core complaint against the IRS is that it did not act even-handedly. Had it done so, rather than focusing its fire on conservative groups, the IRS could be accused of incorrectly interpreting the law and/or making a bad policy decision. But it could not be accused of using its power to tip the scales against conservatives.

It is the latter allegation that makes this story a scandal. That’s why conservatives have emphasized that the impact of Lerner’s treatment of advocacy groups fell overwhelming on conservative organizations. And it’s why there has been so much focus on the search terms used by IRS.

McCain and Levin have made no secret of the fact that their staffers met with the IRS shortly before Lerner revealed her targeting. In fact, after Lerner revealed this practice, McCain and Levin stated that members of committee staff had recently discussed with IRS for six hours its policy regarding advocacy groups. They complained that during the meeting, IRS did not reveal that it was targeting groups based on what they advocate.

The emails released by Judicial Watch refer to notes of the six-hour meeting taken by two IRS participants: Judith Kindall and Suzanne Sinno. To my knowledge, the contents of these notes have not been revealed. I’d love to see the notes, but don’t even know if they still exist.

As for the newly-released emails, they don’t seem to implicate John McCain in the targeting of conservative groups.

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