How Hillary Clinton Is Trying to Have It Both Ways on the IRS Scandal

With an eye on the presidency in 2017, another Clinton is parsing words and pandering.

Did Hillary Clinton sell out President Obama on the IRS scandal? I assumed so when BuzzFeed Politics posted this tweet:

Obama, as you might remember, dismissed the undisputed fact that the IRS targeted political groups. He called it a "phony scandal" and declared that "not even a smidgen of corruption" exists inside the IRS — this without an independent investigation or the least bit of transparency from his administration.

Stretching the bounds of credulity, the IRS announced Friday that countless emails to and from Lois Lerner were "lost." As a former head of the IRS division that did the screening, Lerner is a key to determining whether the activity was directed by Obama's political team and whether conservatives were overwhelmingly targeted.

Conservatives jump to their conclusions: The IRS and White House are guilty. Liberals leap to theirs: The IRS and Team Obama are innocent. But the fact is, we don't have all the facts. We don't know whether there has been a criminal abuse of power, and we can't trust either party to find an honest answer, which is why on Friday I renewed my call for an independent prosecutor.

All this to explain why the BuzzFeed tweet caught my eye. Unable to watch the Fox News interview live, I monitored reports on Twitter and seized on the possibility that Clinton was distancing herself from Obama.

My colleague Alex Seitz-Wald wisely told me to take a breath.

Later, I carefully watched a recording of the interview. After nearly 30 years of covering Bill and Hillary Clinton, I should have known her words needed parsing.

"I think that anytime that the IRS is involved, for many people, it's a real scandal." This was the first thing Clinton said after Greta Van Susteren asked whether she thought it was a phony scandal. The line was rehearsed. It's the basis of the BuzzFeed tweet.

The key to the sentence is "for many people." Clinton did not say whether she's one of those people. With a soft chuckle, she delivered a line that simultaneously empathized with Obama's critics while giving herself a safe distance from them. I never said I think the scandal is real.

It was vintage Clinton. You could almost see her husband standing in the studio's shadows, biting his lower lip and nodding.

"And I think, though, there are some challenges that rightly need to be made to what is being said, and I assume the inquiry will continue." The first part of the sentence is mush, but I took it to be a signal to the White House and its liberal allies that GOP allegations must be challenged. The second half is a sop to people who want the investigation to continue.

Note that Clinton did not say who should conduct the inquiry, nor did she demand transparency from the White House and the IRS. Again, she played both sides of the fence.

"I don't have the details, but I think what President Obama means there is [that] there really wasn't a lot of evidence that this was deliberate, but that's why the investigation needs to continue." This is how she defended Obama's indefensible and premature claim that the scandal is phony.

"Well, maybe the right thing to say is, 'Let's investigate it but let's do it in as nonpartisan, as fair-minded — fair and balanced as we can because we want to know what the facts are.' " A relentless Van Susteren had told Clinton it's "irrational not to be extremely suspicious" after the loss of the emails. She pressed Clinton again about the phony-scandal claim. Clinton took a stab at a less-partisan White House talking point ("Let's investigate "¦") while taking a jab at the GOP ("but let's do it" in a nonpartisan way).

For good measure, Clinton pandered, echoing Fox's "fair-and-balanced" motto with a knowing smile.

"Not just the president but anybody who says that is basically saying the circus around these investigations "¦ are really kind of confusing what is happening, and it's important to get back to very professional inquiries that can't be accused of politicizing because somebody may be worried about the answer they get or don't get, and let's try to find out what the facts are." After Van Susteren accused Obama of trying to throw the public "off the scent," Clinton recast the phony-scandal talking point. Notice the subtle digs at the GOP. "Circus," "confusing," and "politicizing" are all dog whistles to the Left.

Clinton is running for president in 2016 unless she decides to stop. She hopes to make sales on her book tour, but the main purpose of the rugged public schedule, according to advisers, is to help her decide whether to take the next step and formally announce. It's been a bumpy rollout, but Clinton deserves credit for back-to-back interviews Tuesday on CNN and Fox News. Few political figures could (or would) expose themselves to so many questions in such little time under that kind of pressure.

But on the question of whether she distanced herself from Obama on the IRS scandal — whether she would hold the IRS accountable and demand transparency from government like she did as a Watergate prosecutor — the answer is, unfortunately, no.

After all these years, Clinton is still reacting to a controversy by deflecting it. The public is left with a mound of words to parse.