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No One Believes the IRS’ Story

IRS scandal_lost emails_lois lernerby James Taranto

A new Fox News survey asks the following question: “The Internal Revenue Service says that two years of emails from IRS employees about targeting conservative and tea party groups were accidentally destroyed because of a computer crash and cannot be recovered. Do you believe the IRS that the emails were destroyed accidentally or do you think they were destroyed deliberately?”

Before we reveal the results, pause and take a guess: What percentage of respondents do you think believe the IRS?

We’d have said between 30% and 40%. The administration, backed by its allies in the Democratic Party and the media, has cast the scandal in partisan terms, as a Republican witch hunt. Obama himself told Fox’s Bill O’Reilly in February that while “there were some bone-headed decisions,” there was no “mass corruption. Not even a smidgen of corruption.”

Given the partisan polarization of America’s political culture–a long-term trend that predates Obama’s presidency but certainly has not been arrested by it–we’d have expected at least Obama’s hard-core political base to express support for the IRS position. The president’s approval rating hasn’t dropped far below 40% in any poll we’re aware of; it’s 41% in the Fox survey.

The proportion of respondents who believe the IRS’s claim to have destroyed the emails accidentally: 12%. That’s congressional-approval-rating territory. Seventy-six percent disbelieve the IRS story, and the remaining 12% say they’re “unsure.” Asked whether Congress should continue to investigate, the ayes had it, 74% to 21%.

To be sure, whether people believe the IRS is telling the truth is a different question from whether the IRS is telling the truth. Opinion polls can’t resolve the latter question. But what the Fox survey shows is a broad public distrust of the IRS and, by implication, of the president.

Two developments yesterday suggest the distrust is warranted. The Daily Signal reports that “under a consent judgment [yesterday], the IRS agreed to pay $50,000 in damages to the National Organization for Marriage as a result of the unlawful release of the confidential information to a gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, that is NOM’s chief political rival.”

Meanwhile, David Ferreiro, the U.S. archivist, testified yesterday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He told lawmakers that the IRS did not report the lost emails to the National Archives, as the law provides. A cautious Ferreiro “stopped short of saying the tax-collecting agency ‘broke’ the law, saying ‘I am not a lawyer,’ ” Politico reports. “But when pressed by Michigan Republican Tim Walberg about whether the IRS failure to inform the National Archives when it learned that two years of the former head of the tax exempt division’s email were lost, he said: ‘They did not follow the law.’ ”

Each of these developments refutes Obama’s claim that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption.” And if the public is right that the destruction of emails was a deliberate coverup–and keep in mind that not just Lois Lerner but six other IRS employees are said to have suffered contemporaneous hard-drive crashes–that surely qualifies as “mass corruption,” even irrespective of the facts of the underlying scandal.

The president’s claim that there was no corruption never quite made logical sense. To believe it, you have to accept two premises: that the IRS acted on its own, without direction from the White House or other politicians; and that it did so incompetently rather than corruptly. Both these premises could be true. But if the first one is–if the problem at the IRS was the lack of supervision rather than the following of corrupt orders from above–then Obama is in no position to make authoritative declarations about what the IRS was up to.

The Fox poll is a stunning vote of no confidence not just in the Obama administration but in the government itself. Public skepticism of government is a healthy impulse, and in this case it seems fully warranted. A government that cannot inspire even a minimal degree of public confidence is a danger to itself and to the country.

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James Taranto is a member of The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board.