IRS Commissioner Avoids Questions on Trump's Taxes

IRS Commissioner Avoids Questions on Trump's Taxes
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IRS Commissioner John Koskinen came to Congress Wednesday to defend himself against Republican calls to impeach him, but he also had to deflect Democrats’ repeated questions about what could become the most significant documents of 2016: Donald Trump’s tax returns. 

The Internal Revenue Service, maligned by Republicans during the Obama administration amid accusations the agency had targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny, is the gatekeeper for Trump’s returns, which could have a powerful impact on the presidential race if released. Trump’s returns have become a major issue because he has refused to make them public despite every candidate of both major parties having done so since 1980.

The GOP nominee has repeatedly said the IRS is conducting an audit of his taxes and that he has been advised not to release the documents until the audit is complete. Democrats have recently ramped up a pressure campaign to push Trump to release the returns, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid calling the candidate a “swindler” and saying he has lied about his personal wealth.

On Wednesday, Koskinen found himself pulled into the debate.

He testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the Republican calls to impeach him over allegations that he oversaw the deletion of evidence in the targeting scandal and misled Congress during previous testimony. Democrats, however, took the hearing in a decidedly political direction, attempting to make it an examination of the nominee’s taxes.

They repeatedly questioned Koskinen about details of Trump’s charitable foundation – many of which have come to light in reporting from the Washington Post – including allegations that the real estate tycoon used money from his charitable foundation to settle lawsuits for his business, to donate to the political campaign of the Florida attorney general -- who had been investigating Trump University -- and to buy personal gifts, including a football helmet signed by Tim Tebow, and portraits of himself.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said he wanted to ask Koskinen about a “hypothetical” and added, “let’s say for the sake of argument,” before describing the exact situation of Trump’s charitable foundation as outlined in the Post’s reporting.

Koskinen, as he did multiple times, refused to play ball.

“I came here to answer questions truthfully and straightforward,” he said, “but we don’t talk about individual cases, and if hypotheticals begin to look like individual cases I’m not at liberty to give opinion or judgments about them.” 

Koskinen later added that he understood the interest in the case, but it would be “inappropriate” for him or anyone at the IRS to comment on it in any way.

“Our employees understand every taxpayer’s information is sacrosanct,” he said. “We do not reveal it to anybody. And it’s important for them to understand that we do not discuss anything about their tax situation with the public.”

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the first lawmaker to bring up Trump’s tax returns at the hearing, said he did so because he considered the impeachment proceedings to be “nonsense” but wanted the opportunity to question a top tax official about Trump’s documents. He and other Democratic lawmakers said they didn’t think the line of questioning put any pressure on Koskinen despite the fact that he was testifying against his own impeachment.

In some of the general questions asked, Koskinen did confirm – as is widely known – that the IRS typically sends a letter to an individual to alert them of an audit. Trump released a letter from his tax lawyers in May saying that his returns from 2009 to present were under audit, Bloomberg News reported at the time, but he has not released a letter from the IRS. Koskinen said at the hearing there are no IRS regulations preventing someone from releasing that information publicly, something Gutierrez called significant.

Republicans “wanted to talk about taxes. I wanted to talk about some taxes that are relevant to the American people,” Gutierrez told RealClearPolitics after the hearing. “I don’t believe Donald Trump’s under audit. I don’t believe he’s under audit. I believe he made it up.”

A spokesperson for Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Many Republicans have been calling for Koskinen to be impeached for more than a year, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released articles of impeachment in October. Chaffetz expressed frustration with Democrats’ tactics at the hearing, labeling them “silly antics that are not very appreciated by anybody watching what is a serious hearing.” In comments to RCP, he added, “If the shoe were on the other foot, they’d be singing a totally different tune. I find their approach to be totally unprincipled and beneath the role of Congress."

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., echoed that frustration. Asked if he had any concerns that the IRS, an agency Republicans have investigated for politically motivated actions, could illegally release Trump’s tax returns for political reasons, he said, “I think if they thought they’d get away with it, they would, yes."

“The IRS has already demonstrated for years under the Obama administration that none of us should have any confidence in their integrity or their confidentiality,” Franks said.

Still, Koskinen refused multiple times to discuss Trump’s tax returns, saying he was not able to confirm whether someone was under audit or whether a potential audit was continuing or concluded.

“The IRS commissioner has no authority over any individual audit or the determination of whether an audit should begin, and I think that’s appropriate,” he said.

Charles Rossotti, who served as IRS commissioner under President Bill Clinton, told RCP there is “no gray area” in the law about releasing individuals’ tax information, and he didn’t think Koskinen or anyone at the IRS felt pressure to make Trump’s information public. He said there are very careful safeguards in place to make sure the only people who have access to certain tax return information are those working on the specific cases.

The Democrats’ effort “actually doesn’t put a lot of pressure on them because in this case, there’s really no discretion allowed,” Rossotti said. “It’s pretty easy actually. Most of the time the problem comes where there’s a judgment call or you have the authority to make a decision.”

Mark W. Everson, who served as IRS commissioner under President George W. Bush and briefly ran for the Republican nomination for president last year, said he didn’t have any concerns about the privacy of Trump’s information, and noted that there are safeguards in place to protect it.

“My guess is that his returns are being cared for pretty carefully. That would just be, I would think, something that would be prudent to do at this stage,” Everson said. “My experience is everyone up and down the line is scrupulous to protect taxpayer information.”

Still, for Democrats, grilling Koskinen about Trump’s tax returns wasn’t necessarily about getting any information released or confirmed by him, which they acknowledged. It was both a way to distract from what they said was a “sham” hearing, and to continue their party’s effort to spotlight Trump’s unwillingness to release his returns.

“We shouldn’t have to ask you to talk about Donald Trump’s tax returns,” Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida said while questioning Koskinen. “We should be free to talk about those tax returns because, as you’ve told us, there is simply no reason that he has not shared them with us.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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