Did Trump Unleash the IRS on Political Foes?

Did former President Trump unleash the IRS on political foes James Comey and Andrew McCabe? This question is back in the news. Trump’s former Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, says Trump demanded the two FBI Commissioners be punished by subjecting them to the IRS’s most invasive National Research Program audit.

I wrote about this story when it first broke in the summer. I shared that, as a former IRS employee, I cannot imagine how Trump’s demand could have been executed.

That said: Do I think Trump wanted IRS Commission Rettig to audit Comey and McCabe? Absolutely. Do I believe former Gen. Kelly, saying that Trump demanded the audits? Yes. Did the IRS actually subject these Trump nemeses to its most invasive audit? Yup. Do I believe their audits were the result of Trump’s manipulation of the IRS? Nope.

Mechanism for a Presidential-Triggered Audit

What I don’t see is the mechanism that would work here. To include Comey and McCabe in the NRP audits, at least one, but probably several federal bureaucrats, in a highly data-driven office, would have needed to look the other way if not actively participate in this political persecution. Given that 92 percent of federal employees voted for Clinton in 2016, wouldn’t they have been outraged by Trump’s singling out Comey and McCabe? Wouldn’t we have an internal whistle-blower if this had happened?

Moreover, who transmitted the order from Trump to the National Research Program office? Certainly not Trump – he would need to use an underling. And I doubt Kelly did so; his denial rings true, given the rest of his public persona. I doubt IRS Commissioner Rettig would have gone along with it. He’s conservative, so perhaps biased against these FBI actors, but not crazy: getting caught would be career suicide. Rettig has a history of supporting the IRS bureaucracy and its many guardrails to ensure audit selection is data-driven, not taxpayer-identity-driven. Other White House staff would have been challenged to get the directive to the NRP without many other White House staffers and IRS employees knowing about it.

It is possible that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration will, in the next year or two, find a large check written from a Trump organization to an IRS worker who launched the audit, and then quietly retired. But I highly doubt it. I still think Trump’s demand that Comey and McCabe be audited, and it actually occurring, is just a coincidence.

November 16, 2022

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