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What did Obama know and when did he know it?

During Watergate, Sen. Howard Baker made that question famous. It was a different time, a different president and a different second term scandal. But now, once again, the question is raised and it goes to the heart of the issue. Was Obama behind the IRS attacks on his political enemies? Or was it happening on its own, a bureaucratic “planchette,” moving across the political Ouija board with many biased hands guiding it? And if it was the latter, when did the president finally know about it?

According to the inspector general, the IRS asked illegal questions of politically targeted groups and organizations. This included “requests for donor information, positions on issues, and whether officers have run for public office.” One disgusting national news story revealed that IRS agents had asked an organization to report the content of their prayers.

Now comes the shocking news. The former IRS commissioner, Douglas Shulman, reportedly visited the White House 157 times since 2009. Sarah Hall Ingram, the woman responsible for the IRS division that targeted conservative and constitutional groups, made 165 visits to the White House since 2011. Incredibly, according to the official White House visitors’ records, none of the visits of the two IRS officials overlapped.

During those 322 visits to the White House, which represents almost every other working day, did they ever encounter the president? And if so, what did they talk about? Baseball? Did they ever talk about work?

Did they feel comfortable about quizzing nonprofit applicants about their prayer language because they knew the president wouldn’t mind? How could Barack Obama possibly not know what was going on? When they met with him, did they lie to him?

Ken Walsh – arguably America’s preeminent authority on modern presidents – makes the point in a recent book that President Obama, as other presidents before him, may be isolated from what is happening in his own administration. (Walsh’s book is titled “Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America’s Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership.”)

As Walsh points out, presidents’ aides often give their boss some distance so he has deniability when a scandal erupts. There is nothing new about this. History has showed how sovereigns and mafia dons get things done without giving a literal command. Frustrated over Thomas Becket, King Henry II supposedly bellowed, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Aides figured out what Henry wanted and butchered Becket.

Having worked in a White House, I personally experienced this firsthand. A good staffer knows when the president should not be bothered by something, when his fingerprints should not be on the paper. But can one meet with the president or his staff hundreds of times and not talk about one’s work? Isn’t the president too busy to talk about life? Or to quiz an IRS official about personal gossip at the agency? Wouldn’t a chief executive want to know what she is doing and how she is doing it? And would she really make hundreds of visits without the details of her work ever coming up? What would be the purpose of the visits?

As Kenneth T. Walsh shows in “Prisoners of the White House,” and I was to experience firsthand, isolation happens to all presidents. But then so does hubris.

Even if one accepts the most generous account of President Obama’s innocence, it does not explain how he continues to relentlessly reward those involved in scandal and punish his enemies after the fact.

Sarah Hall Ingram, the administrator of the IRS division that targeted conservative groups, the one who made 165 visits to the White House and supposedly never uttered a word about what she was doing, was given a $100,000 bonus and promoted to run the enforcement of Obamacare.

What is that? Coincidental? A payoff?

The president can claim he didn’t know when it happened, which seems farfetched, but he surely knows now. And like Richard Nixon before him, he is paying off the Watergate burglars.