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Why all taxpayers should care about the rare IRS audits of Comey and McCabe

Following The New York Times’ report on Wednesday that James Comey and Andrew McCabe — two people former President Donald Trump had castigated — were chosen for rare and intrusive audits of their personal federal income tax returns for 2017 and 2019 respectively, the Internal Revenue Service asked the Treasury Department’s inspector general to investigate the matter.

The question at hand is whether the Trump administration used the IRS to audit perceived political enemies.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that efforts were made to use the IRS as a bludgeon against political opponents.

Not only does the whole thing echo an egregious abuse from the Watergate scandal, but the possibility of an impartial government agency being used in this way should concern all taxpayers.

The IRS vehemently denied that IRS officials targeted Comey, the former FBI director, and McCabe, his former deputy, for detailed audits of their tax returns. “It’s ludicrous and untrue to suggest that senior IRS officials somehow targeted specific individuals for National Research Program audits,” said IRS spokesperson Jodie Reynolds.

Maybe it is a coincidence that these two perceived enemies of Trump were both selected for this invasive audit. But as the Times’ report pointed out, the chances of someone being selected for this kind of audit is very small. In 2017, for example, it would have been 1 out of 30,600. While statisticians may not agree on a specific likelihood, let’s agree that the odds are exceedingly high.

If it is not a coincidence, this is very troubling. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that efforts were made to use the IRS as a bludgeon against political opponents. 

In a 1971 Oval Office tape, President Richard Nixon said he wanted an IRS commissioner who would “go after our enemies and not go after our friends.” 

Luckily for the United States, the IRS commissioner he chose, Johnnie Walters, was not compliant. 

In September 1972, when Nixon’s White House pressured Walters to subvert the IRS for partisan gain, he unequivocally rebuffed the overture. John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, asked Walters to obtain confidential tax information about 575 staffers and contributors to the campaign of Sen. George McGovern, Nixon’s Democratic opponent in that year’s presidential election. This list was compiled by a person working for Nixon’s political campaign.

The 1974 final report of the House Judiciary Committee in support of impeaching Nixon reported that Walters testified he told Dean that this request would be “disastrous” and “make the Watergate affair look like a ‘Sunday School picnic.’” Walters said he raised Dean’s request with Treasury Secretary George Shultz, who rejected it.

After speaking with Nixon and H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, about his unsuccessful effort to utilize the IRS, Dean again met with Walters, asking him this time to investigate between 50 and 70 McGovern supporters. Again, Walters refused. The IRS did nothing to implement the plot, and Walters stuck the enemies list in a vault and did not retrieve it until congressional investigators asked for the list.        

Even though the IRS never launched audits of Nixon’s political foes, the House Judiciary Committee concluded that Nixon’s misconduct was so flagrant that it constituted one of several instances of “abuse of power” justifying Nixon’s impeachment.   

In its final report, the committee wrote that Nixon “violated the constitutional rights of citizens by directing or authorizing his subordinates to interfere with the impartial and nonpolitical administration of the internal revenue laws.” The committee added that the fact that Nixon was unsuccessful didn’t make the abuse of power any less real.

Few political scandals are as explosive and insidious as charges that government officials used the enforcement apparatus of the federal government to retaliate against political opponents. Voters especially recoil at the prospect that an administration could sic the Internal Revenue Service on taxpayers.

Some scandals may seem remote from ordinary Americans — not this one. It’s nerve-wracking enough to be notified that the IRS will be auditing one’s tax return. Being singled out for an IRS audit because of a person’s political views is unconscionable. 

An investigation by the inspector general would answer whether there is an innocent explanation due to a statistical anomaly that put both men under an IRS microscope or an ill-conceived purposeful vendetta, as the Nixon White House attempted.

Even a ham-handed, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to conscript the IRS into harassing political foes resulted in a bipartisan House Judiciary Committee in 1974 voting to impeach Nixon for trying. In Nixon’s case, no political enemies were actually audited. This time we know that both Comey and McCabe were. The unresolved question is why.

While nothing can compare with the criminality of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol to sabotage our democracy, other potential abuses of power cannot be overlooked or excused by a solitary focus on Trump’s illicit efforts to stay in power. 

The inspector general’s investigation would rightly focus on an issue of enormous political impact. If that investigation concludes that the IRS was used by the Trump administration to punish political foes, this finding will resonate with voters who fear government leaders using levers of power to punish political opponents.

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