Playing the IRS card: Six presidents who used the IRS to bash political foes

Since the advent of the federal income tax about a century ago, several presidents – or their zealous underlings – have directed the IRS to use its formidable police powers to harass or punish enemies, political rivals, and administration critics. Here are six infamous episodes.

5. President Bill Clinton (D)

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
President Bill Clinton denied using the IRS to attack his political enemies, including those involved in the Whitewater investigation. But some critics say that there was a pattern of tax audits being used as political retaliation during his administration.

President Clinton, himself the target of one of the most costly and lengthy investigations in US history, denied using the IRS against political enemies, especially those involved in the Whitewater probe.

''We may do some dumb things from time to time, but we are not certifiably insane,'' said his White House press spokesman, Mike McCurry. ''The IRS and the IRS solely is the one that makes decisions about the enforcement of tax laws.''

Still, the list of Clinton accusers who faced tax audits – some immediately after going public with their accusations – suggests a pattern of political retaliation, even if not personally directed by the president, critics say.

These included many figures involved in the Whitewater investigation, as well as women who accused the president of sexual harassment or rape (Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick) or who alleged sexual affairs (Gennifer Flowers and Liz Ward Gracen). They included Billy Dale, whose firing as director of the White House travel office set off a firestorm of congressional criticism; FOX News analyst Bill O'Reilly, a critic who complained of being audited three times during the Clinton presidency; and the watchdog group Judicial Watch, which filed more than 50 lawsuits against the Clinton administration. 

Investigators never found evidence akin to the Nixon tapes to prove the audits were tied to the Clinton White House. But conservative critics highlight a memo on Mr. Dale in which White House Associate Counsel William Kennedy is quoted saying that the IRS is “on top of it.”

“The fact is, the White House in this case misused the IRS and the FBI in an incredible abuse of power,” said Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida in a floor speech in 1996.

In a 2002 complaint against the IRS, Judicial Watch quotes an IRS agent, in effect, confirming that the motive for the Judicial Watch audit was political retaliation. “What do you expect when you sue the president?” the IRS agent reportedly told Judicial Watch officials, in a meeting on Jan. 12, 1999.

The Clinton-era IRS, like several before it, audited a wide range of organizations viewed as hostile to the White House agenda. These included leading conservative publications, think tanks, and interest groups, among them The American Spectator, the National Review, the Heritage Foundation, the National Rifle Association, the National Center for Public Policy Research, the American Policy Center, American Cause, Citizens for Honest Government, Citizens Against Government Waste, Progress and Freedom Foundation, and Concerned Women for America.

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