When the president told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that there's "not even a smidgen of corruption" in the IRS political targeting scandal, he destroyed any credibility his administration had to investigate itself.
Unlike Watergate, there's no special prosecutor investigating the alleged dirty tricks campaign against conservative groups. Because there isn't, Obama's words have more serious implications than Nixon's. The IRS investigation supposedly hasn't been completed.
Days before the president's interview with O'Reilly, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder tried to reassure the Senate Judiciary Committee that his department is conducting a serious, unbiased investigation.
He dismissed press accounts that Justice had already decided there had been no criminal violations. Then Obama pulled the rug out from under Holder by suggesting the press was right.
It reminds one of a line heard in Westerns: "We'll make sure you get a proper hangin', son, right after your trial," only in reverse.
The president's statement was bad on many levels. For one thing, there were already good reasons to question the investigation's validity. Holder's Justice Department selected an Obama donor and campaign volunteer as a key investigator. This is at odds with guidelines requiring impartial investigators.
And after eight months of "investigating," none of the alleged IRS victims had been contacted. When asked about this in the Senate, Holder responded, "I don't want to get into that."
And there's the fact that the IRS continued to slow-walk applications for tax-exempt status, made unreasonable document requests and audited conservative groups months after the scandal broke.
But perhaps the most serious indictment of the president's words is that they could be seen as obstruction of justice. There is, at least in theory, an ongoing investigation that could eventually lead to the president himself.
There's a reason people under investigation typically don't comment to the press. It's because this can be interpreted as an attempt to coordinate stories and impede investigations.
The president, by saying to O'Reilly that there were no laws broken, but merely "bonehead" decisions, provided a storyline that can be used by all the IRS officials involved.
Any investigation that clears the IRS of violations of law now will rightly be called illegitimate. Let's be clear here: The IRS was pursuing a political agenda.
We know this because emails between IRS officials reveal they were obsessed about curbing political speech to circumvent the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. And we know this because of what IRS agents told victims.
My organization was hit with an exhaustive IRS audit in 2012 that lasted 15 months and the agent assigned to conduct it indicated it was political.
It was prompted by one of our publications being critical of administration policy.
The IRS agent said he saw nothing wrong with the publication and lamented, "I don't know what they expect me to find."
There's nothing wrong with what we wrote, but our opinion was nonetheless the basis of a full field audit? That's harassment; that's intimidation.
The only way the investigation is going to be credible now is if Holder uses the United States Code's general delegation provision to seek a special prosecutor. Since anyone he'd select would be suspect, he should ask the judicial branch to make the appointment. If he refuses, Congress should reauthorize the Independent Counsel Act to allow it to do so.
Nixon knew what had to be done to ensure a credible investigation. Obama should follow his example. Reaching Nixon's ethical bar shouldn't be that difficult.
David A. Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative organization. Readers may write to him at 501 Capitol Court NE, Washington, D.C. 20002
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