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Why did the IRS neglect to audit Trump during his first 2 years in office?


Is the IRS obligated to audit the president? Agency procedures say yes, and both former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden say the department audited their tax returns regularly. Not so for former President Donald Trump. During his first two years in office, the IRS failed to audit him. Here to tell us what this could mean - we're joined by Nina Olson. She served as the IRS' national taxpayer advocate from 2001 to 2019. So, Nina, what would your concerns be about this discrepancy between how presidents were audited?

NINA OLSON: Well, you know, the mandatory audit program, which is just an administrative rule, so it's not congressional, it's not part of the law, but it is mandatory and it's in the IRS procedures that are instructions to its staff. And it - mandatory means mandatory. So the concern there is that it took until April 3, 2019, to actually begin to audit one of the returns that had been filed preceding the president's ascension to office. And it wasn't until September 2019 that an actual mandatory audit was started, and that was the only mandatory audit that occurred during the years of his presidency.

And that just means, why was it that the IRS waited until 2019 to commence a mandatory audit? And why was only one of all of the years that were being audited designated as such? I do want to say, he - you know, the president had said - the former president had said that he was constantly under audit. And the records that we now have show that he - you know, 2009 to 2013 were under audit, 2014 was under audit. The 2015 year was started the day that Chairman Neal asked for records. And it wasn't until 2016 return that was designated as a mandatory audit program. So all of those years were under audit. Just - were they under the mandatory audit?

MARTÍNEZ: So do you think that, Nina - because you know the IRS well - do you think that everyone kind of just went through exactly what you said and thought, well, he's being audited, so I guess it's happening or maybe just looked around and said, someone's going to do it, right?

OLSON: Well, you know, I find the timing of the audits inexplicable. You would think that because it is a special provision and as the records kept saying, this is sensitive, that it's sensitive in two ways. You know, you need to - you don't want to be accused - the IRS bends over backwards to not be accused of being politically, you know, motivated. On the other hand, you've also got to treat it so that if there's a rule that says you're going to do a mandatory audit, then you better do the mandatory audit, or it looks politically motivated that you're not doing the audit. And so you really need to hew to those provisions. And in this instance, they didn't.

I think what is interesting is they - it seems like they tried to follow through their normal procedures. They were confronted with a highly complex return. They kept noting in the files that there were over 400 what we call passthrough entities, which might have been schedule C sole proprietorships, partnerships, limited liability companies, all of which report some income, but then pass it through to the actual taxpayer, underlying taxpayer, in this case, the former president. So it's sort of like a spider web of relationships, which requires a lot of looking at, which is partly why maybe some of the returns were selected late because they hadn't wrapped up the earlier returns...


OLSON: ...And items on the earlier returns would influence the later returns.

MARTÍNEZ: But Nina, reportedly only one person was assigned to the job. And just what you described in the last 30, 45 seconds, it sounds like it's a - more than a one-person job.

OLSON: Yeah, well, that was actually a subject of dispute between the representatives and the IRS when they finally started doing some of these later year returns, that they - the IRS wanted to add two more revenue agents. These are what we call the most sophisticated auditors. And that was a - you know, you're increasing the staffing by 300%. Normally, you may have one person assigned to do what they call a risk assessment on the return - what items are you going to look at? Here they went ahead and had one person and wanted to expand. Congress recommended - the Ways and Means Committee recommended a format for future presidential audits, including codifying this provision, but having at least two revenue agents and then a team of specialists.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Nina Olson, executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights. Nina, thank you very much.

OLSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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