Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s not yet possible to say, definitively, that the Trump administration engineered the intensive and extensive tax audits of former FBI Director James Comey and his deputy Andrew McCabe, reported Wednesday by the New York Times. The chances that the two men, whom then-President Donald Trump regularly derided on Twitter and at rallies, would have been selected for the rare audits are minuscule, but as the Times has noted, “minuscule does not mean zero.” The IRS said in a statement to the Times that “individual audits or taxpayer cases” are “handled by career civil servants” and that IRS commissioner Charles Rettig “has never been in contact with the White House – in either administration – on IRS enforcement or individual taxpayer matters.”
So it is theoretically possible that the two men near the top of the vindictive president’s robust enemies list could have been randomly selected.
But if it turns out the former president did play a role in the audits, it would come as no great shock to many – not only because Trump delights in attacking his foes, but also because presidents have long availed themselves of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and other powerful agencies to target their political opponents.
That history is not exculpatory of Trump, but rather reminds us that these agencies remain vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors. And that’s a particularly worrisome flaw now, given widespread right-wing efforts to raze the administrative state. Americans concerned about those efforts – which run the gamut from Supreme Court decisions gutting the power of entities like the Environmental Protection Agency to severe budget cuts at agencies like the IRS – need to push for reforms, like stronger safeguards against political interference and more oversight from independent watchdogs to protect and legitimize these agencies that enable the federal government to function.
Agencies like the IRS are the engines of the administrative state. They’re where policy becomes operative: how tax law is administered, how environmental regulations are enforced, how trade policy is effectuated. That has made them a tempting target for anti-government activists and politicians, who have long wedded broad anti-government rhetoric with efforts to dismantle, defund or defang those organizations.
But presidents and executive appointees of all political stripes have also been enticed by what they saw as the potential of these agencies to carry out personal and political agendas.
This has been especially true of the IRS. After a number of scandals in the 1940s and early 1950s involving corrupt agents, the IRS underwent extensive reforms, including changing its name from the Bureau of Internal Revenue to the Internal Revenue Service, a change meant to emphasize the agency’s commitment to the public. But even as it was undergoing that overhaul, the IRS had become a key tool of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI relied on IRS records as part of its surveillance of domestic activists, in particular targeting leaders of the civil rights movement.
Presidents and their administrations also relied on the agency for political purposes. During the Kennedy administration, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy received a memorandum from labor leaders Victor and Walter Reuther that outlined ways to use administrative agencies like the IRS, the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission to counter “the growing strength of the radical right.” This led to the creation of the Ideological Organizations Project, which targeted right-wing groups and challenged their tax-exempt status.
By the time President Richard Nixon took office, then, the idea of weaponizing the IRS was already well established. His innovation – one that resonates with the Comey and McCabe audits – was to use the agency to target his personal enemies. During investigations into administration wrongdoing, White House Counsel John Dean testified that Nixon’s lengthy enemies list had been forwarded to the IRS with the suggestion that the agency investigate their tax returns.
Nixon’s IRS chief Johnnie Mac Walters refused. But the agency did deny tax exempt status to a number of liberal organizations; in one of the cases that went to court, a judge found that the organization had been “singled out for selective treatment for political, ideological and other improper reasons.”
Intent matters in cases like these, which is why it’s so important that we know about the Ideological Organizations Project and Nixon’s enemies list. IRS decisions often have political consequences without necessarily having political motives.
In the 1970s, the IRS began working to remove tax-exempt status from private schools that engaged in racial discrimination. This affected religious schools like Bob Jones University that argued such discrimination was part of their belief system, and became a major event in the rise of a more active religious right.
Likewise, a change in IRS procedure in the 2000s and 2010s applied greater scrutiny to tax-exempt requests for organizations with political-sounding names, which for years was exaggerated as a coordinated effort by the Obama administration to target conservative groups (and President Barack Obama did acknowledge findings of individual singling out of conservative groups as “intolerable” and “inexcusable” failures of oversight and demanded greater accountability as a result).
In response to the news of the Comey and McCabe audits, the IRS chief has asked for an inspector general’s investigation into the decision to audit the FBI leaders. That investigation will begin the important work of uncovering whether the audits were politically motivated. But while it is underway, the administration, with help from Congress, should work to strengthen the firewalls between the White House and federal agencies, while making clear that those agencies are an indispensable part of what makes this country work – and making them more transparent, functional and ethical is a key part of the administration’s larger goal of safeguarding our democratic system.