Donald Trump’s newly released tax returns confirm that the IRS failed to start auditing him until two years into his presidency. One of the larger questions that arises from this disclosure is whether there was a reasonable explanation for why an audit wasn’t carried out in a timely fashion, or whether the former president perverted the functions of government to suit his own needs.
Trump repeatedly (convolutedly, and ridiculously) insisted that he couldn’t release his tax returns because they were under audit. But as it turns out, that wasn’t really the case. The House Ways and Means Committee revealed last week that the IRS actually failed to audit Trump until 2019, despite a program that makes auditing sitting presidents mandatory. Those audits are still not completed.
What’s more, the IRS did not even begin auditing Trump’s tax returns until April 3, coincidentally the same day the committee Chair Richard Neal sent the agency a written request for the records.
In the IRS’s defense, the agency is chronically understaffed. But it might have been trying to stay out of the maelstrom of controversy surrounding Trump’s taxes, noted Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.
As Bookbinder explained in The Atlantic, though, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that “Trump used the levers of government to shield himself from scrutiny.”
Trump appointed several allies at the IRS over his term. He’s certainly no stranger to using his political powers to protect himself and his cronies. An analysis of his tax returns by the Joint Committee on Taxation appears to indicate Trump used his office to steer federal business to his own companies. He and other government officials would also stay at his hotels while traveling abroad.
The IRS seems to have selectively struggled to carry out its audits of recent presidents; the agency demonstrated itself to be fully capable of conducting thorough annual audits on Barack Obama and Joe Biden. But when it finally got around to Trump, the audit was initially assigned to just one employee—a doubly puzzling choice given the nature of the real estate mogul’s complicated business holdings.
So what really happened? It’s possible that the Senate, which will remain under control of the Democrats, might pursue an investigation. If this inquiry takes as long as the one that only finally got Trump’s tax returns released this week, we could be waiting quite a while for answers. Either way, this is not a good look for Trump—or the IRS.