Comey and McCabe were government employees for years, pulling predictable salaries reported to the IRS along with their tax withholdings, and they wouldn’t have fallen into those categories at the time.
But then Trump fired them — Comey in 2017 and McCabe in 2018. Comey wrote two lucrative books and began giving paid speeches, and McCabe joined CNN as an on-air law enforcement analyst. According to tax policy experts and former high-ranking IRS officials, both men would have been much more likely to be selected for investigative inspections than as FBI agents, because the pool of high earners with such eclectic income streams is significant. smaller.
The rare audits were first reported by the New York Times. Lawmakers and the IRS commissioner have asked the agency’s top tax watchdog to investigate.
IRS chief faces questions about audits of Trump enemies
Trump was constantly outraged at Comey and McCabe — advisers say they topped his proverbial list of enemies as president — and former officials told The Washington Post that Trump often mused that they should be investigated. But former IRS officials said the National Review Program would be difficult to use as a deliberate weapon.
By firing the two men, however, Trump made sure the couple made a lot more money than they did at the FBI — putting them in a new tax bracket that the IRS investigates far more often than even well-paid government employees.
The chances of both men coincidentally being implicated in the investigative program audits shortly after Trump fired them may seem slim, but former top tax policy officials told The Post they were confident this was what happened — though they admitted that it looked suspicious.
“We like to see patterns, so that’s what we see,” said Mark Mazur, the former assistant treasury secretary of the Biden administration for tax policy, who previously headed the IRS office responsible for the puzzling research program.
The idea of using the IRS against political opponents certainly occurred to the former president.
Trump, who famously refused to release his own tax returns and claimed they were under scrutiny, regularly complained that the IRS had been “a pain in the ass” for him over the years, a former official said, and he was “unbelievable.” well-informed” in past allegations that previous governments had tampered with the IRS for political purposes.
A former senior official said Trump would rant that people should be investigated and monitored, although neither of the two officials who spoke to The Post said they had ever heard Trump issue specific orders to that effect. The people spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
“They did it to us,” Trump would say in 2017, accusing the IRS of conducting politically motivated audits of pro-Republican groups under President Barack Obama, a storyline that conservative media had often focused on, though there’s no evidence. came forward to make such a claim. “He would say that this person needs to be investigated, this person needs to be checked. I never heard him give a direct order,” said one of the former officials.
The IRS has worked for years to avoid even the appearance of political bias, though Trump administration officials said that wouldn’t have deterred the former president.
“He didn’t care what the rules should be,” said one of the former officials.
Through a spokesperson, Trump said he knew nothing about the audits of McCabe and Comey, even though he criticized the two men.
The agency was faced with previous suspicions that its investigations had been used by political actors. Shortly after the 2012 presidential election, Mark Everson, who served as IRS commissioner during the George W. Bush administration, received a call from an investigative reporter about the accidental enforcement audits of two aides to Mitt Romney, now a senator from Utah, who is the Republican senator. challenger to Obama that year.
“I told the reporter, ‘Please tell me you have more than the individuals said they were checked shortly after the election,'” Everson said. The story never ran. Everson said it would be impossible for the IRS to quickly launch a series of investigations after a presidential election, even if it wanted to. “Things happen, and in the political world they talk and conspire.”
The investigative program includes audits that are intrusive and complicated for taxpayers to deal with, but they are very different from the enforcement audits most people think of when concerned about hearing from the IRS.
Enforcement audits target specific individuals suspected of violating the tax law. Their goal is to collect revenue and deter further cheating. For the investigative audits, taxpayers are randomly selected by an algorithm, and the procedures do not mean the IRS suspects fraud. The agency uses the results to regularly reprogram its enforcement software so that it can go more accurately after questionable activities in the future.
“The fact that he is in a… [National Research Program] sample, a stratified sample, what is this payback period?” a former top IRS figure said about Comey.
The Taxpayer Advocate Service, the IRS’s internal consumer rights watchdog, has been asking Congress for years to reimburse taxpayers chosen to participate in an investigative audit, as many individuals spend hours obtaining financial documentation for examiners and often retain advice because they feel intimidated by the method.
“These people were not selected because you were concerned,” said Nina Olson, who served as the national taxpayer’s advocate from 2001 to 2019. “They really do a public service.”
The research program is seen as an annoying necessity within the agency, according to IRS insiders. When the tax collector started the program in 2001, he sent highly trained enforcers to survey nearly 15,000 taxpayers each year. The depth of the investigation frustrated the agents, who were not getting any revenue back, and members of Congress, who received complaints from voters about the program’s invasive nature, according to a former top IRS official who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about. sensitive internal discussions.
Details of the investigative program are being closely monitored as the agency fears that information leaks on topics the IRS is studying could encourage would-be fraudsters.
The IRS has surveyed between 4,000 and 5,000 taxpayers in recent years, a significant drop that experts say is indicative of the IRS’s chronic lack of resources and the IRS’s turning away from enforcement activities, especially against high earners.
In 2019, the latest year for which data is available, 53 percent of individual enforcement audits were conducted against taxpayers with incomes less than $50,000, according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service, and 8 in 10 of those filers claimed poverty tax credits.
Jeff Stein and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.