Tuesday, August 30 , 2016, 1:42 am | Fair 64º

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Mona Charen: When Is a Scandal Not a Scandal?

President Barack Obama has flouted the law again and again — unilaterally rewriting the health law at least 18 times since passage; changing immigration law by executive fiat (after having explained that to do so would be beyond the scope of his constitutional authority); dictating that union claims should trump creditors in the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts; altering the welfare laws by regulation; making recess appointments when Congress was not, in fact, in recess; and many more.

After each arrogation of power, critics have protested, "He can't do that!"

Yes, he can — because there is nothing to stop him.

What Obama has done is plainly unconstitutional, but there is no magic buzzer that sounds when a public official violates his oath to uphold the Constitution. Lightning bolts do not issue from the heavens staying the errant executive. The only guardrail that keeps our leaders from abusing their power is the vigilance of the people. Key to that vigilance is the press — so much the worse for us.

With a few exceptions, members of the media have performed more like government mouthpieces than like adversarial, news-hungry independent actors. They've been more lapdogs than watchdogs. Each time the Obama administration has violated the Constitution, Republicans and a few commentators have howled. The administration has responded that Republicans are only seeking partisan advantage, and the media (when they don't ignore the outrage entirely) have "reported" that Republicans are only seeking partisan advantage.

The latest example of contempt of country is the IRS announcement, issued late Friday afternoon, that a huge trove of emails between Lois Lerner and officials outside the IRS had been lost due to a hard drive crash on Lerner's laptop. Though this doesn't pass the laugh test, it provoked barely a ripple in the news. The New York Times made just a glancing mention on its website a few days later. The Washington Post ran only an Associated Press story. And while some figures on CNN and elsewhere expressed skepticism about the IRS claim, the baying and bugle calls that should have greeted such a blatant dodge were not heard.

These emails have been the subject of a subpoena for a year. That the IRS would only now come forward with a story about their suspicious disappearance is Rose Mary Woods territory. (She supposedly accidentally erased 18½ minutes from the Richard Nixon tapes.)

The scandals plaguing this White House are so numerous now that it's possible to lose sight of the magnitude of the IRS story. The IRS has unparalleled power over citizens and unmatched access to confidential information. If the IRS can be corrupted and used as a weapon by the party in power against political opponents, it is difficult to imagine how the social trust essential to self-government can persist.

A recent Pew poll showing growing polarization among Americans has elicited a great deal of commentary. Consider what the politicization of the IRS means in this context: If government is permitted to become a partisan cudgel, the effects could be dangerous for social peace.

Sharyl Attkisson, who was apparently too dogged for CBS News, has shown what members of the Fourth Estate should be asking. She posted eight questions for the agency on her blog, including: "Please provide all documents and emails that refer to the crash from the time that it happened through the IRS's disclosure to Congress Friday that it had occurred," and "Please provide the documents that show the computer crash and lost data were appropriately reported to the required entities including any contractor servicing the IRS. If the incident was not reported, please explain why."

John Hinderaker of the Power Line blog was blunt: "The Obama administration is lying, and lying in a remarkably transparent way." Hinderaker, a practicing attorney, uses discovery to retrieve emails on a regular basis. Emails are stored on a server. A crash of the user's hard drive would be irrelevant. "Further, emails are universally backed up in some other medium, often electronic tape, for long-term storage. Thus, even if an email server is destroyed, or all emails are deleted from a server after a specified length of time, the emails are still recoverable from back-up storage media." The IRS, along with all other government agencies, uses such a system.

Congress employed its constitutional subpoena power. If Hinderaker is correct, the administration has flouted the law again by fraudulently refusing to provide the subpoenaed materials. Can they get away with it? They have so far. Each new installment of lawlessness chips away at our right to call ourselves a nation of laws.

Mona Charen is a columnist with National Review magazine. Click here to contact her, follow her on Twitter: @mcharen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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