Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that IRS headquarters is located on Constitution Avenue between 12th and 13th streets NW. It is located between 12th and 10th streets NW. This version has been updated.
John Koskinen settled into a high-backed leather chair and turned on the flat-screen TV to C-SPAN.
It was around 5 o’clock on the evening of Dec. 6, 2016. At that moment, the House of Representatives was voting on a peculiar piece of business. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a combative former college wrestler who chaired the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, described the intent of House Resolution 828: “impeaching John Andrew Koskinen, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, for high crimes and misdemeanors.”
No sub-Cabinet official — the IRS chief reports to the treasury secretary — has ever been impeached in U.S. history.
Koskinen, who is 77, watched the votes tally, alone in his office surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of trinkets and awards for a distinguished career in business and public service. A doorknob from the old Commodore Hotel in Manhattan, which, as a corporate restructuring lawyer, he sold as part of the Penn Central Transportation Co.’s historic bankruptcy. A snow globe commemorating the year 2000 for his turnaround of the government’s troubled Y2K task force. A miniature Metro signpost for his stint as D.C. deputy mayor and city administrator, helping guide the District through the turbulent early aughts. In 2008, he had been retired for six weeks when George W. Bush persuaded him to run the faltering government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac. For 50 years, presidents and CEOs had called him to take on one era-defining crisis after another. Mr. Fix-It meets Forrest Gump.
In the spring of 2013, more than a year into his second retirement attempt, the Obama White House approached him with one last turnaround job: the Internal Revenue Service, which was in turmoil. A month earlier, an inspector general’s report had revealed that low- and mid-level employees had singled out conservative nonprofits seeking tax-exempt status for special scrutiny. Groups with “patriots” and “tea party” in their names waited years for a decision from the IRS, far longer than the typical three to four months. Both congressional Democrats and Republicans blasted the agency for allegedly silencing Americans based on their political views. John Boehner (R-Ohio), then the House speaker, said the IRS’s admission that it had acted inappropriately “echoes some of the most shameful abuses of government power in 20th-century American history.”
Koskinen’s task, if he took the job, would be to bring stability to the embattled agency. He waited all of 15 seconds before saying yes. “I didn’t have to think too hard to figure out how critical the IRS is to the functioning of the government, and it touches virtually every American,” he told me. The job was tailor-made for him — and if he pulled it off, a fitting capstone to a long career. On Dec. 20, 2013, the Senate voted 59 to 36 to confirm him as the 48th commissioner of the IRS. He once told a reporter, “It was my Christmas present to myself.”
Nearly three years later, he sat in his office watching his own impeachment vote, facing the prospect of making history for all the wrong reasons.
At a time when administration officials casually talk about gutting whole agencies and the new Congress, in one of its first acts, revived an antiquated rule that allows members to target individual government employees, Koskinen’s experience looks less like an aberration and more like a harbinger of things to come.
By the time he arrived at the IRS’s French Renaissance-inspired headquarters on Constitution Avenue between 12th and 10th streets NW, the agency had adopted the recommendations of a Treasury inspector general report to prevent another targeting scandal. The IRS official who ran the nonprofits division, a 63-year-old career public servant named Lois Lerner, had resigned. The acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, was pushed out. Koskinen said he believed the agency was well on its way toward reforming itself, so he turned his attention to other pressing issues like the rise of tax-refund fraud, cybersecurity and identity theft.
Most of all, he wanted to stanch the bleeding in the IRS’s budget. Congress had slashed its funding by nearly $1 billion since 2010, and the IRS workforce had shrunk by 8,000. Koskinen hoped to talk some sense into congressional appropriators. “I spent 20 years in the private sector with companies under stress,” he said. “Nobody ever said, ‘Let’s take our revenue arm and starve it for funds and just see how it does.’ ” For him, funding the IRS, which provides 90 percent of all revenue for the federal government, was a no-brainer: “If they gave us more money, we’d give you more money back.”
Republican lawmakers had other ideas. For the conservative wing of the GOP, led by the House Freedom Caucus, the IRS imbroglio had become a crusade. They searched for evidence tying the White House to the IRS debacle, conducted scores of depositions, and subpoenaed hundreds of thousands of emails sent and received by Lerner and other IRS officials. A few months into the job, Koskinen went to Capitol Hill to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the IRS’s cooperation with congressional investigations into the targeting scandal. The exchanges between Koskinen and House Republicans were testy, to say the least.
“Are you or are you not going to provide this committee all of Lois Lerner’s emails?” asked Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
“We are already —” Koskinen started to say before Chaffetz cut him off.
“Yes or no?”
“Yes, we will do that.”
Here’s where it gets complicated. A month earlier, in February 2014, IRS attorneys discovered a gap in the trove of Lerner’s emails they had previously sent to Congress. Eventually they learned that two employees working the overnight shift in Martinsburg, W.Va., had mistakenly erased backup tapes that contained, among other things, tens of thousands of Lerner’s emails. Koskinen said he first learned of the missing emails in April 2014 but waited until June to tell Congress, when he had a full picture of what happened.
As soon as he did, lawmakers hauled him up to the Hill for several days of marathon hearings.
House Republicans were apoplectic. They drew comparisons to Rose Mary Woods and the missing 18 1/2 minutes of Oval Office audio recordings between Richard Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman discussing the Watergate break-in.
“I am sitting here listening to this testimony,” an angry Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said. “I just don’t believe it. That’s your problem: Nobody believes you.”
“I have had a long career,” Koskinen responded icily. “That’s the first time anybody has said ‘I do not believe you.’ That’s fine.”
Whatever progress he had hoped to make fixing the IRS was soon overshadowed.
That December, Congress passed a government funding bill that forced the IRS to slash its budget by $600 million, a cut so deep that Koskinen feared the IRS could no longer function. The investigations into the IRS lasted through 2014 and into 2015, and each time Republicans summoned Koskinen and accused him of having lied to them about Lerner’s emails.
In July 2015, Chaffetz, the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a 29-page letter to President Obama asking the president to remove Koskinen from his position. “Mr. Koskinen failed to testify truthfully,” Chaffetz told reporters. “The statements that he made to Congress were false.”
A few months later, House Republicans announced they would seek to impeach Koskinen. Chaffetz issued a statement that read: “Commissioner Koskinen violated the public trust.”
Then in June 2016, the House Oversight Committee voted 23 to 15 along party lines to formally censure Koskinen for engaging “in a pattern of conduct inconsistent with the trust and confidence placed in him.”
There’s a sign near the door in Koskinen’s office: DUE TO RECENT CUTBACKS, THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL HAS BEEN TURNED OFF. He has a wry, self-effacing sense of humor — the effort to impeach him, he likes to say, was a conspiracy between his wife and the House Freedom Caucus to get him home. Yet underneath that is an almost antiquated (in these hyper-partisan times) belief in the good that government can do and the value of public service. Anthony Williams, the District’s mayor from 1999 to 2007 who hired Koskinen as his deputy, described Koskinen as a rare mix of brilliance, modesty and curiosity not often found in a public servant. “He has this sense of wanderlust, not just intellectual or geographic in terms of traveling, but in terms of the jobs that he wants to tackle,” Williams said. “I feel bad because, with the right support, John could’ve gotten the IRS up to modern customer service standards and done a lot to improve respect for government.”
Koskinen’s biggest fear about the impeachment ordeal was not that it would tarnish his name, but that it would dissuade people in the private sector from working in government.
“He’s quite right to worry about the chilling effect,” says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “If he can be investigated for malfeasance and mismanagement, then other people with his credentials will say, ‘I ain’t gonna do it.’ ”
In his office the day before the election, Koskinen insisted the IRS had done everything in its power to cooperate with Congress. He pointed to a Treasury inspector general who concluded that the employees who’d erased the backup tapes weren’t attempting to hide anything. He noted the Justice Department’s finding of “substantial evidence of mismanagement, poor judgment, and institutional inertia” but no criminal wrongdoing.
“Nobody can establish [Obama] did it. Nobody can establish anybody in the White House did it,” Koskinen said. “Nobody can establish that I’ve testified falsely about anything I actually knew.” To House Republicans’ point that he and the IRS could’ve tried harder to preserve the emails, he said, “I don’t know how much more we could have done.”
On Dec. 6, Rep. Jordan called a vote on whether to move forward with articles of impeachment against Koskinen. By then, Donald Trump was the president-elect, and Republican leaders had lost interest in impeachment. Jordan’s resolution failed 342 to 72. “We had the opportunity to hold one of the politically connected accountable for his wrongdoing and we didn’t do it,” Jordan later told me. “This election was about holding accountable people who did wrong and draining the swamp, and here we are, John Koskinen stays in office.”
Koskinen sounded relieved the ordeal was over when we spoke a few weeks later. And he had reason to feel optimistic about the state of the IRS in general. In the past year, he had persuaded Congress to give the agency an additional $290 million. No cuts were needed to the agency’s workforce. He was lauded for creating a public-private initiative, the Security Summit, to combat fraud and cyberattacks. The IRS was starting to turn the corner.
But whether Koskinen would be able to finish the job was unclear. Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s pick to run the Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, argued for a funding boost for the IRS during his Senate confirmation hearings in January. But Trump transition officials ducked specific questions about Koskinen’s future.
In mid-December a Trump spokesman said: “This is an important [question],” but “no decision on that front has been made yet.”
(Shortly after Trump was sworn in, Republican lawmakers and outside conservative groups resumed their campaign to oust Koskinen. “I think he’s been a disaster and I’d be shocked if we don’t have a new one,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Hill in late January.)
When Trump came up during our conversation in December, Koskinen got up from his chair and returned with a wood-mounted doorknob from the Commodore Hotel. Its buyer back in 1976 was a 30-year-old budding real estate mogul named Donald Trump.
The Commodore was Trump’s first deal. Koskinen said he remembered Trump as relentless and personable, a kid from the boroughs trying to make a name in Manhattan. He credited Trump’s timing — the Commodore reopened as the Grand Hyatt just as New York City emerged from a recession. The Hyatt proved a huge success.
Over the years, the two men saw each other off and on at social functions, Koskinen said, but didn’t keep in touch.
Reminiscing about the Commodore deal during an appearance at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., in 2014, Trump mentioned Koskinen by name. “He’s the head of the IRS,” Trump said. “And he’s a very good man. And while I’m a strong conservative and a strong Republican, he’s a friend of mine.”
Koskinen’s term ends in November. Would his connection with Trump help his chances of finishing it out?
“I serve at the pleasure of the president,” he said. With a laugh, he added, “But by now, I think retirement’s looking pretty good.”
Andy Kroll is a freelance writer in the District. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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