The problem(s) with Trump targeting universities' tax-exemptions

As Trump targets universities' tax-exemptions, the similarities between this and the 2013 "IRS scandal" are striking - except the latter was a mirage.
Image: President Donald Trump returns to the White House.
President Donald Trump returns to the White House.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

Try to imagine what the political reaction might look like if a progressive president were to publish a statement about churches and their tax-exempt statuses. "Too many churches are about radical conservative politics, not worship," this hypothetical statement might read. "Therefore, I am directing the Treasury Department to scrutinize their tax-exempt status, which will be taken away if these churches continue to preach messages I don't like."

Obviously, such a message would be met with swift condemnations, and for good reason. And yet, consider the message Donald Trump published in a pair of misguided tweets this afternoon.

"Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education. Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status and/or Funding, which will be taken away if this Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy continues. Our children must be Educated, not Indoctrinated!"

Last week, Catherine Rampell made the persuasive case that the president may decry "cancel culture," but no one embraces it with more vigor than Trump. Today, the Republican seemed eager to prove Rampell right.

In practical terms, I suspect Trump's tweets were hollow and meaningless. He routinely peddles imaginary scenarios with no basis in reality, and it's likely he issued no such directive to the Treasury Department.

But the fact that the president would even make such a declaration -- coupled with the possibility that he and his team really are pursuing this -- is worth appreciating in more detail.

By any fair measure, what Trump wrote deserves to be seen as scandalous. The sitting American president, in no uncertain terms, has told the public that he intends to target educational institutions for teaching lessons he finds politically objectionable. (It's the same kind of authoritarian mindset that led Trump to question the broadcasting licenses of news organizations that run stories he doesn’t like.)

If investigative reporters had uncovered a White House document in which the president directed federal investigators to target universities' and school districts' tax-exemptions over his ideological distaste for their lesson plans, it would be a front-page scandal.

But in 2020, there’s no secret document for investigative reporters to find. Donald Trump publishes this on Twitter for all the world to see.

Let's not forget that in 2013, the political world was apoplectic about the so-called "IRS scandal" in which conservative non-profits seeking tax-exempt status were allegedly subjected to added scrutiny based solely on political considerations.

It wasn't long before the controversy evaporated into nothing -- multiple investigations made clear there was no wrongdoing -- but the story jolted the political world because of the appearance of an abuse. The idea that the Treasury Department might consider politics and ideology in decisions related to entities' tax-exempt status was seen as so obviously outrageous that there was no defense.

One Republican pundit went so far as to argue in 2013, in all seriousness, “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.” Politicization within the Treasury Department, the pundit added, "threatens the basic integrity of our government."

We now know, of course, that the "scandal" was a mirage and there was no Obama-era politicization within the Treasury Department. But seven years later, Trump is publicly declaring his intention to do what the Obama administration was falsely accused of doing: the Republican president wants schools' tax-exemptions to receive special scrutiny based on his perceptions about their politics.

If everyone who lost their heads about the "IRS scandal" could weigh in on Trump's new directive, I'd love to hear their reactions.