Trump sparks fight over IRS relief payments

President Trump has sparked concerns about politicizing the IRS by putting his name on the coronavirus relief checks and letters sent to Americans informing them of their payments. 

The moves are seen as a way for Trump to take credit for the pandemic aid that households are receiving just months before an election where his handling of the outbreak and the economic damage it has caused will play a prominent role.

While presidents regularly tout their economic policies, critics say Trump’s actions unnecessarily inject partisanship into a government agency that should be viewed as nonpartisan. And they argue his move could backfire politically.

“Americans interact with the IRS more than any other federal agency. It’s critical that the agency not be perceived as partisan and working on behalf of the president’s reelection campaign,” Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Friday in a statement to The Hill. “Putting the president’s name on economic impact payment checks and his signature on direct deposit notification letters undermines that nonpartisan reputation.” 

The direct payments to Americans are a key component of the record $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package Trump signed into law on March 27. The law provides for one-time payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child.

The IRS is also required to send letters to taxpayers within 15 days of making a payment, informing them of the amount and how it was transmitted and giving them a phone number for reporting any missing payments.

More than 130 million payments have been delivered, the IRS said this week.

Trump did not sign the checks, but they include his name on the memo line. The letters are signed by Trump and come on letterhead indicating they’re from the White House, even though the IRS is mailing them out.

“As we wage total war on this invisible enemy, we are also working around the clock to protect hardworking Americans like you from the consequences of the economic shutdown,” Trump writes in the letters. “We are fully committed to ensuring that you and your family have the support you need to get through this time.” 

The president adds that the March 27 law that created the direct payments was passed with large bipartisan support, and he praises Congress for acting quickly.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said it was his idea to put Trump’s name on the checks.

“He is the president, and I think it’s a terrific symbol to the American public,” Mnuchin said in a CNN interview last month.

The administration has also said that putting Trump’s name on the checks did not result in any delayed payments.

Trump spoke about the letters during a press briefing last week, saying they fulfill the requirement for notification in the coronavirus relief law.

This is believed to be the first time that a president’s name has appeared on a check from the Treasury Department. But there is a history of administrations highlighting economic proposals they enacted.

“Being political itself and boasting about stimulus programs is not unheard of,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University.

Under former President Obama, signs were posted at certain construction sites indicating the projects were funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — a 2009 law Obama enacted. Those signs, which states posted after being encouraged to do so under Obama administration guidance, didn’t include the president’s name.

Letters giving Americans advance notice of direct payments during George W. Bush’s presidency mentioned that the payments were established under legislation signed by the president, but the letters were on IRS stationary and did not include Bush’s signature.

Republicans argue that the Trump administration’s actions are consistent with what has been done in the past.

Michael Zona, a spokesman for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said that adding Trump’s name to the stimulus checks “has a negligible expense,” unlike the signs promoted by the Obama administration.

“It says a great deal that these Democratic naysayers never questioned these costly expenditures but are complaining now,” Zona said.

Others familiar with past economic relief efforts say the Trump administration’s actions are unique in how prominently they link a president to economic aid.

Jack Smalligan, a senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute who worked on relief programs at the Office of Management and Budget during the Bush and Obama administrations, said he couldn’t “think of any kind of comparable action by those presidents to associate themselves so overtly with what is essentially government assistance.”

Some experts view Trump’s name on the checks and letters as damaging the ability of the IRS to be viewed as nonpartisan.

“It is exactly what you don’t want the tax agency to be linked to,” said Nina Olson, the former national taxpayer advocate who is now executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights. “You do not want it to be viewed as a partisan tool.”

The checks are being issued and the letters are being sent out just six months before Trump faces reelection. Both Republicans and Democrats have said Trump’s move is designed to ensure voters give him credit for the payments.

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean told The Hill that “it can only help to have his name associated with money that voters can take to the bank.”

But Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the left-leaning consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, argued Trump could end up hurting himself through his actions related to the checks because they are politicizing the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is so vulgar that I think it’s going to backfire for Trump,” he said.

Zelizer said he thinks the election implications of Trump’s name on the letters and the checks will depend on the state of the economy in the fall.

“It will only be part of the bigger economic story,” he said.

Tags Chuck Grassley Coronavirus coronavirus relief checks Donald Trump Ron Wyden Steven Mnuchin

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