Obama defends handling of Benghazi, other scandals

Barack Obama

In an occasionally contentious interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, President Barack Obama defended his administration’s handling of the Benghazi terrorist attacks and the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) targeting of conservative groups. He also addressed the Obamacare canceled health plan controversy.

Obamacare rollout and Sebelius

O’Reilly began the interview by asking President Obama why HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius still has a job in his administration after the initial, disastrous rollout of the federal Obamacare exchange, Healthcare.gov.

President Obama repeated the line that no one in his administration “anticipated the degree of problems” on the federal Obamacare exchange website, which isn’t necessarily true, given the warnings from some officials that the website wasn’t ready for launch. Instead, he acknowledge the problems and focused on the fixes applied to the website.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated the degree of problems that you had on HealthCare.gov,” said President Obama. “The good news is that right away, we decided how are we going to fix it, it got fixed within a month and a half, it was up and running and now it’s working the way it’s supposed to and we’ve signed up three million people.”

It’s true that the website is functioning much better compared to the initial launch. It’s also true that more Americans have selected plans on the Obamacare exchanges. The 3 million number that President Obama gave, however, is questionable.

Though the number has been reported as enrollments, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has indicated in previous reports that these are just “selected plans,” meaning that they may or may not completed the process and paid their first premium. As of mid-January, the administration wasn’t sure how many people had actually paid their first month’s premium and, thus, could be counted as an enrollment.

What’s more, there are still problems with the federal Obamacare exchange website. The Washington Post reported this morning that “[t]ens of thousands of people” have learned that Healthcare.gov can’t handle appeals they’ve made to their initial application process.

President Obama promised accountability on the part of his administration, though one has to wonder when and what exactly he means by that given that his promises often come up short.

If you like your plan, you can’t keep it

O’Reilly asked President Obama about the Obamacare health plan cancellation controversy and the promise made on at least three dozen occasions that Americans would be able to keep their coverage under the law, deemed by PolitiFact as 2013’s “lie of the year.”

“Was it the biggest mistake of your presidency to tell the nation over and over, if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance?” O’Reilly asked.

Rather than immediately answer the question, President Obama jabbed at the host, telling him that “you’ve got a long list of my mistakes of my presidency.” Still O’Reilly pressed, asking again if the promise that Americans could keep their health coverage was the “biggest one.”

[T]his is one that I regret and I’ve said I regretted, in part because we put in a grandfather clause in the original law saying that, in fact, you were supposed to be able to keep it,” President Obama finally replied.

“It obviously didn’t cover everybody that we needed to and that’s why we changed it,” he said, “so that we further grandfathered in folks and many people who thought originally, when they got that cancellation notice, they couldn’t keep it or not.”

It’s true that the administration did craft “grandfathered plan” rules to allow Americans to keep their current health coverage. The problem, however, is that the regulations were so narrowly written that there was no way President Obama could ever live up to the promise. That, of course, was intended. Not only did the administration want a top-down approach and increased regulation of health plans, the more cancellations there were on the individual market, the more potential enrollees the administration would have.

While President Obama has addressed the controversy, the “apology,” if one can call it that, was half-hearted. He ostensibly told Americans who’ve lost their coverage that he’s sorry they believed what he said. Additionally, he also tried to revise the promise he made to Americans, which just added insult to injury.

The catch in all of this is that the cancellations could have been avoided. In September 2010, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) offered a resolution of disapproval that would have rejected the regulations submitted the administration. The rules made it virtually impossible for insurance companies to maintain a plan’s “grandfathered” status, which refers to any plans in effect before March 23, 2010.

Enzi warned that the regulations would “fundamentally change the health insurance plans of millions of Americans.” He noted, citing the administration’s own reports, that up to 69% of businesses and 80% of small businesses would lose the grandfathered status of their health insurance plans because of Obamacare.

The White House opposed the resolution and Senate Democrats, including vulnerable members, voted it down, guaranteeing that millions of Americans would lose the coverage they had and liked.

No corruption in the IRS, says Obama

That’s right, folks. One of the most powerful agencies in the government — the IRS — wasn’t acting out of ideological disagreement with conservative groups when it inappropriately and unconstitutionally targeted them. Rather, said President Obama, the agency was confused about regulations relating to non-profits.

O’Reilly led off this part of the interview by asking about the 157 visits former IRS director Doug Shulman made to the White House. President Obama said that Shulman’s visits were related to the health insurance reform law, adding that he didn’t recall meeting with the IRS director.

The host went on to ask about the targeting of conservative groups, noting that the details surrounding the scandal are still not clear.

“Bill, we do,” said President Obama. “They — folks have, again, had multiple hearings on this. I mean these kinds of things keep on surfacing, in part because you and your TV station will promote them.”

So, nevermind that the IRS wittingly targeted conservative groups that were merely trying to engage in the political process. Nevermind that leftist groups weren’t subject to the same scrutiny. Fox News is to blame for the focus on the scandal, according to President Obama. Gotcha.

President Obama attributes the targeting to confusion and boneheaded decision-making, not corruption.

“Bill, when you actually look at this stuff, there have been multiple hearings on it,” President Obama told O’Reilly. “What happened here was it that you’ve got a 501(c)(4) law that people…the folks did not know how to implement.”

“There were some bone-headed decisions out of a local office,” he said, adding that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” in the IRS as it related to its targeting of conservative groups.

The targeting of these group began in the spring of 2010, according to Politico’s timeline on the scandal. In June 2011, Lois Lerner, the IRS’s tax-exempt division chief, became aware of the scrutiny based on certain terms, including “Tea Party,” “Patriot,” and “9/12.” Lerner supposedly directed the agency to change the process by which it screened non-profit organizations.

In December 2011, Lerner didn’t disclose her knowledge of the targeting in a meeting with House Ways and Means staffers (she also omitted this fact in November 2012). Shulman would later tell the House Ways and Means Committee, in March 2012, that the IRS wasn’t targeting conservative groups.

Lerner owned up to the scandal in May 2013. She refused to testify on the matter before Congress, opting to exercise her Fifth Amendment rights, and later retired from the IRS.

The IRS is, by the way, currently considering guidance would legitimatize and institutionalize the agency’s targeting of conservative groups. The proposed rules would define “candidate-related political activity” and exclude groups that engage in this activity from receiving non-profit status and require them to disclose donors. House Republicans are hoping to delay implementation of the proposed rules.

Fog of war to blame for false Benghazi narrative

O’Reilly also brought up the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack, which has been in the news of late due to declassified congressional testimony and a bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

O’Reilly brought up the declassified congressional testimony from June 2013 by General Carter Ham, in which he said that it was clear from the beginning that what happened at Benghazi was a terrorist attack. That runs counter to the initial claim by the White House and administration that it was a protest over an anti-Islam video gone awry.

President Obama said that he characterized Benghazi as an “act of terror” the day following the attack. He intimated that there was confusion as to who was responsible.

Now, it’s true that President Obama did portray it as a terrorist attack, but Glenn Kessler, the fact-checker at the Washington Posthas noted that the President “appear[ed] to have gone out of his way to avoid saying it was a terrorist attack.” In fact, they focused in on the “religious tolerance” angle very early on, which was a clear attempt to pin the attack as a reaction to the video.

“The fact of the matter is is that people understood, at the time, something very dangerous was happening, that we were focused on making sure that we did everything we can — could — to protect them,” President Obama told O’Reilly. “In the aftermath, what became clear was that the security was lax, that not all the precautions and — that needed to be taken were taken and both myself and Secretary Clinton and others indicated as much.”

“But at the moment, when these things happen, Bill, on the other side of the world, people don’t know at the very moment exactly why something like this happens.  And when you look at the videotape of this whole thing unfolding, this is not some systematic, well organized process,” he added.

While the Senate Intelligence Committee report noted that the terrorists who used furor over an anti-Islam YouTube as an opportunity to carry out the attack, it concluded that the incident was not a protest gone awry as the White House and administration officials.

The report also found that elements of al-Qaeda were involved in the attack and that the attack was preventable, faulting the State Department, then-led by Hillary Clinton, for the security failures in Libya.

Fox News will run the rest of the footage from the interview with President Obama tonight at 8 pm on The O’Reilly Factor.

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