The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
Have you noticed the contrast in recent weeks between the FBI and the IRS? The FBI is seemingly in every other headline in this year’s presidential campaign. The IRS has been in none. If you are a federal agency responsible for enforcing the law, you do not want to be in the political headlines.
Both agencies faced communications challenges. Hillary Clinton’s emails have been the subject of FBI inquiries and Donald Trump’s taxes may be under IRS review.
But think about how we know this. We know about much of the detail of the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails because FBI director James Comey told Congress and the public about it, both last July and again last week. In July he called a press conference to announce that the agency had completed an investigation and found no criminal violations. Last week, he wrote a letter to Congress (which was inevitably leaked) saying that agents had discovered a new trove of emails that his agency would review. That, inaccurately but entirely unsurprisingly, turned into headlines about how the FBI reopened its investigation into Clinton’s email server.
Since Comey’s announcement, unnamed FBI sources have leaked about possible investigations into, among other things, the Clinton Foundation and the relationship between Trump’s former campaign manager and the Russians. Agency sources have also leaked stories about bureaucratic battles between the FBI and the Justice Department about the internal deliberations over some of these investigations. It has been, on the whole, unseemly and, as many former senior Justice and FBI officials of both parties have noted, entirely inappropriate.
Contrast that with the IRS. Trump says he is being audited by the agency but the IRS itself has been absolutely silent on the subject. We have learned that Trump aggressively used the law to reduce—or perhaps even eliminate—his income tax liability for a period of time. But we know this because enterprising reporters spent months rooting through public documents, because someone did leak three state tax returns to The New York Times, and because Trump himself has acknowledged that he paid no tax for some years.
What has the IRS said about a Trump audit, on or off the record? Nothing.
Indeed, the agency has never confirmed that it is auditing Trump’s returns or that it ever has. As far I can tell, the IRS has responded to questions with the generic reply that the agency does not prohibit someone under audit from releasing his tax returns. This merely stated the obvious since every president for four decades has had his returns routinely audited and also released them to the public.
Other than that, the IRS has been silent, as it is legally obligated to be. No press conferences. No leaked documents. No unidentified sources whispering that the agency was looking at this deduction or that income. Not a word.
Unlike the FBI, the IRS has drawn a bright line against disclosure of any kind of taxpayer information, and stuck with it. By doing so, the IRS has stayed out of the campaign muck.
It has come to this: The FBI, treated for decades as a paragon of bureaucratic virtue, is up to its neck in the swamp of electoral politics, thanks largely to its own doing. The IRS, subject of never-ending criticism from both political parties for bureaucratic fumbling, has been a model of responsibility and rectitude. For once, I’d rather be the IRS.
The IRS certainly has its problems, some self-inflicted and some due to congressional meddling and deep budget cuts. But it is good to know that getting tangled up in political campaigns is not one of them.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File