The White House’s enemy du jour is no deep state liberal bureaucrat — though he has been accused of being one before.
Henry Kerner — the Trump-appointed government watchdog who recommended that Kellyanne Conway be ousted for her repeated violations of the Hatch Act — previously cut his teeth working for conservative warriors on the Hill, on some of the right’s favorite investigations, including Fast and Furious.
But he has also been the center of conspiracy theories among tea party types for his alleged connection to claims that the IRS, under the Obama administration, was targeting conservative groups.
Kerner has denied those allegations. Nevertheless, he is likely to be on the receiving end of the right’s hatred yet again now that the White House is going after him aggressively for his report on Conway released Thursday.
Kerner was nominated to his current role as special counsel in the watchdog agency the Office of Special Counsel (not to be confused with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office) in May of 2017. His nomination had bipartisan support and his confirmation sailed through the Senate.
According to the Kerner biography released by the White House then, before he was a staffer on the Hill, he spent nearly 20 years as a career prosecutor in California and is a graduate from Harvard Law. In 2011, he joined the staff of House Oversight Committee, where he worked under former Chairmen Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz, both GOP attack dogs.
But while on the Hill, he also worked for the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). It was there that some overhyped allegations led to him being painted by conservative blogs as a “Deep State Fixer,” a “destroyer” of lives, and a safeguarder of “the swamp.”
Specifically, Kerner was named-checked in internal IRS notes obtained in January 2018 by Judicial Watch. The conservative legal group was investigating claims that the IRS targeted the tax-exempt status of tea party groups for political reasons.
The notes describe Kerner — then the minority staff director for Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where McCain was the top Republican — attending a meeting with the IRS in 2013.
“Henry Kerner asked how to get to the abuse of organizations claiming section 501 (c)(4) but designed to be primarily political,” the notes said, before recounting the back-and-forth with IRS officials about the subject.
“Henry Kerner said that maybe the solution is to audit so many that it is financially ruinous,” the notes said, a line which was quoted across the far-right internet fever swamps in their attacks on Kerner.
McCain’s office had previously denied involvement in any plot with the IRS to target conservative groups.
After the notes were made public in 2018, Kerner went to conspiracy-friendly site Gateway Pundit, of all places, to deny the claims again.
“Henry disputes this week’s reports. He says the IRS targeting scandal was strictly a Democrat endeavor,” Gateway Pundit writer Jim Holt said in the post. “Henry Kerner agreed with The Gateway Pundit that Judicial Watch is an excellent organization.”
In a twist of irony, the group Kerner worked for after leaving the Hill went on to sue the IRS for the alleged targeting. The lawsuit, brought by the conservative-aligned whistleblower group Cause of Action, was filed after Kerner was named to his current role.
Now Kerner finds himself in the crosshairs of the White House, which called his office’s report on Conway “outrageous,” a violation of Conway’s “due process rights” and “tainted by inappropriate external influences.”
“The most alarming fact is that personal pique appears to have influenced the outcome of this investigation, including the decision to make the extraordinary recommendation that the President remove one of his closest advisors,” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a Tuesday letter to Kerner that the White House blasted out after Kerner’s recommendation was made public Thursday.
Also ironically, before Kerner was appointed special counsel, Cause of Action wrote to then Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub about claims that Conway’s conduct that were ethical violations. While calling the conduct — specifically Conway’s comments on Fox News hawking Ivanka Trump’s clothing line — “wholly inappropriate,” the group suggested that the relevant Office of Government Ethics regulations did not cover her as a senior White House advisor.