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Amid Ukraine furor, IRS whistleblower alleges Treasury wrongdoing

The IRS conducts annual audits of the president’s and vice president’s tax returns in a process intended to be protected from politics. But now, a whistleblower is alleging that at least one political appointee at the Treasury Department interfered with it. William Brangham talks to The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein about the “potentially dangerous” implications of such political involvement.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is another whistle-blower case that has emerged in recent days. This one involves a career official at the Internal Revenue Service and the president and vice president's tax returns.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, it's not a well-known fact, but the IRS does annual audits of the president's and vice president's tax returns. These audits are supposed to be protected from politics.

    But now a whistle-blower has come forward alleging that at least one political appointee at Treasury interfered in that process. President Trump has long refused to release any tax returns, and Vice President Pence has also not released any of his recent tax returns.

    Jeff Stein is part of The Washington Post team that broke this story. And he joins me now.

    Jeff, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    As best we know, can you tell us, what is it that this whistle-blower is alleging happened?

  • Jeff Stein:

    We actually first became aware of this whistle-blower complaint back over the summer, when, as part of his lawsuit against the Trump administration seeking President Trump's tax returns, the House Democrat who is leading that push disclosed that he'd received information that suggested improper interference related to the president or the vice president's tax returns.

    What we have learned recently and what we published yesterday is that that complaint comes from a senior IRS — a career IRS official and names at least one Treasury official as being implicated in potential interference of the president or vice president's audit of their return.

    I think it's really clear — and we try to stress in the story and I will try to stress here — that we do not know what kind of interference this refers to. Is it someone calling and saying, stand down, don't go too hard on the president and his audit or his return?

    We have no proof of that right now. This could be as simple as an informational call to say, hey, what's the deal with the president or vice president's audit?

    That said, even that level of communication case between political officials at the Treasury Department and career department at the IRS, who are supposed to be completely walled off from political consideration, according to the former IRS commissioners I have spoken to, according to legal experts, that could be seen as extremely unusual and potentially dangerous to the integrity of the audit process, which has gotten so much attention recently.

  • William Brangham:

    Has the Treasury Department responded to this?

  • Jeff Stein:

    Officially, no. The Treasury Department spokesperson could not comment to us.

    However, we have spoken to administration officials who tried downplaying the complaint and said that it was based on secondhand information and hearsay.

  • William Brangham:

    You spoke to the whistle-blower, him or herself. And it's obvious this is coming forward in the midst of these accusations that the president and his supporters have made about the other whistle-blower with regards to Ukraine, alleging that that whistle-blower and his or her sources are spies or might have committed treason.

    Did this whistle-blower express to you some concern about coming forward in this environment?

  • Jeff Stein:

    Yes. And that was actually quite striking. He did comment on record to us to say, in this political atmosphere, there's been attacks on whistle-blowers.

    And he said that people who have been silent about these attacks need — know better and should stand up, and that this — what could discourage or deter people who see wrongdoing in the government from speaking out and identifying and could pose a serious, serious harm and serious challenge to the ability of whistle-blowers to do that.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Jeff Stein of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

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