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Why didn’t the IRS audit Trump the way it was required to?

The IRS was required to audit Donald Trump's tax returns. It didn't. There was a potentially benign explanation, but we now know it doesn't work.

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To hear Republicans tell it, the Democratic effort to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns was never legitimate. This entire initiative, the GOP has long argued, was little more than a fishing expedition from rabid partisans trying to dig up dirt on a political foe.

That argument suffered a fatal blow this week. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee insisted from the outset that their interest was substantive: The Internal Revenue Service is required to conduct annual audits of the sitting president’s finances, and Congress had an interest in determining whether the IRS’s mandatory presidential audit program was working as it should.

After obtaining the documents pertaining to Trump, lawmakers quickly realized that they were right to check: The IRS didn’t audit the Republican in his first two years in the White House, despite the requirement. The tax agency only began an audit in Trump’s third year in office after the House Ways and Means Committee started asking questions.

The revelations were notable for a variety of reasons. We now know, for example, that Trump was lying when he said in 2017 and 2018 that he couldn't release his returns because he was under audit. We also know that Republicans were wrong to say the effort to obtain the former president’s returns was illegitimate.

But stepping back, there’s a related question that shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle: Why didn’t the mandatory audits happen under Trump? The New York Times reported overnight:

The I.R.S. subjected both President Donald J. Trump’s predecessor and his successor to annual audits of their tax returns once they took office, spokespeople for Barack Obama and President Biden said on Wednesday, intensifying questions about how Mr. Trump escaped such scrutiny until Democrats in the House started inquiring. ... The disclosure of routine audits of Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden during their time in office suggested that the agency’s treatment of Mr. Trump was an aberration.

When these revelations first came to public light this week, it was easy to imagine a benign explanation: The IRS, understaffed and overworked, simply lacked the wherewithal to conduct the Trump audits. Yes, the tax agency is required to conduct these analyses, but if the IRS simply lacked the resources to follow through on its programs, then the Republican sidestepped the scrutiny.

But the Times’ report suggests this explanation is too generous: If Obama’s returns were routinely scrutinized as part the IRS’s mandatory presidential audit program, and Biden’s returns have faced the same inspection, then it’s far harder to believe the agency simply lacked the workforce needed to complete the tasks.

In theory, this is the sort of thing that Congress should, and ordinarily would, find very interesting. In practice, however, the House will soon have a Republican majority — and as much as GOP lawmakers enjoy treating the IRS like a piñata, it seems extremely unlikely that Republicans will demand an explanation as to why Trump received special treatment.

And that means the matter will fall to the Democratic-led Senate to consider.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a written statement this week, “The I.R.S. was asleep at the wheel, and the presidential audit program is broken. There is no justification for the failure to conduct the required presidential audits until a congressional inquiry was made.”

I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this one.