not looking closely

The IRS is accused of doing a half-baked job of auditing Trump’s controversial tax returns

The House Committee on Ways and Means painted a damning picture of the IRS’s oversight

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A taxing time for Trump.
A taxing time for Trump.
Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s tax missteps during his presidency are being laid bare for the world to see.

After a years-long court battle, earlier this month the House Committee on Ways and Means finally got access to six years of the former president’s tax returns, from 2015 to 2021. But with the clock running out on the Democrats’ control of the House and the committee, time was of the essence. At the end of a four-hour long closed door meeting yesterday (Dec. 20), the panel voted 24-16 to release the tax filings as well as its review of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) Mandatory Audit Program under the prior administration.

The filings will be made publicly available in the next couple of days once private information is redacted, but the committee’s review anticipated some of the most striking findings, painting a damning picture of the IRS. “The Committee’s investigation found the mandatory program was dormant, at best, with only one audit opened while the former President was in office, and none have been completed,” lawmakers said in a press release. The findings helped validate concerns that the White House may have pressured IRS agents to go easy on Trump’s returns.

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For the first two years of Trump’s presidency, his taxes weren’t audited at all. The notification of his 2015 tax return being subject to examination went out on April 3, 2019—the date the Ways and Means committee chairman sent the initial request to the IRS for the former president’s return information and related tax return. The former president’s individual income tax returns filed in 2018, 2019, and 2020 were not selected for audit until after he left office in 2021.

While presidential candidates aren’t obliged to release tax files, they tend to do so for the sake of transparency. Trump’s 2016 election rival Hillary Clinton made available about three decades’ worth of disclosures. Meanwhile, the real estate mogul has repeatedly denied calls to make his taxes public. He said he’d do it when the audits are complete but that was a half-baked promise. Given the guarded nature of these audits, there’s really no way of knowing when one is underway, or when it’s concluded.

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A brief history of the IRS Mandatory Audit Program

The IRS Mandatory Audit Program is an internal policy adopted in 1997 that’s meant to ensure the annual audit of the president and vice-president. The practice was put in place during the Watergate era, when then-president Richard Nixon and his aides were embroiled in a tax scandal.

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The House Committee laments lack of oversight for Trump’s taxes

“We anticipated the IRS would expand the mandatory audit program to account for the complex nature of the former president’s financial situation yet found no evidence of that. This is a major failure of the IRS under the prior administration, and certainly not what we had hoped to find…I’ve proposed legislation to put the program above reproach.” —House Committee on Ways and Means chairman Richard Neal

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Trump’s taxes according the Joint Committee on Taxation report, by the digits

Negative: Returns filed in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2020

$1,500: Total income taxes paid in 2016 and 2017

$5.47 million: Refund Trump and his wife Melania claimed in 2020—the year they paid no federal income taxes.

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The multiple spotlights scrutinizing Trump

Trump has seen most investigations as an attempt to derail his 2024 presidential campaign, and this latest move has triggered the same response.

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“This unprecedented leak by lameduck Democrats is proof they are playing a political game they are losing,” Trump’s spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement cited by Newsweek.

The publication of his tax returns is only one of the unflattering spotlights pointed at Trump. Earlier this month, two of Trump’s businesses were convicted of tax fraud.

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The former president is also being probed for mishandling upwards of 300 classified documents, taking them out of the White House and storing them at his Florida home—more may be discovered.

Earlier this week, Trump was referred for criminal prosecution over his role in trying to overturn the 2020 election by the House Jan. 6 committee. If the DOJ investigates and finds wrongdoing, Trump will likely have to shelve his plans for another presidential run.

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