The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From GOP chair to militias, the right issues baseless warnings about armed IRS thugs

The exterior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP)

A lot of federal agencies with seemingly obvious mandates have a wider range of functions than you might expect. The Secret Service is responsible for policing money counterfeiting. The Agriculture Department runs the food-stamp program. And the Internal Revenue Service, in addition to running an archaic, complex paper-based system for tracking tax returns, has an enforcement arm that serves as the literal tax police.

It makes sense, once you think about it. The IRS’s criminal investigation unit, as the enforcement group is called, is tasked with “investigating potential criminal violations of the Internal Revenue Code, and related financial crimes, in a manner that fosters confidence in the tax system and compliance with the law,” as the agency described in a recent job posting.

That posting had provoked an enormous amount of agitation, largely on the right, because of its direct description of the duties the job entailed. Those hired would “carry a firearm and be willing to use deadly force, if necessary,” it originally read, before that stipulation was struck. This is a normal part of service as a police officer, if not necessarily a part that is typically highlighted in job applications. But we don’t usually think of the IRS as a guns-out-and-up sort of agency, which contributed to the reaction.

Most important, though, was that the application, online for months before attracting attention, entered the public conversation just as right-wing fear of IRS enforcement had reached a boil. The Senate’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) on party lines included new funding for IRS staff, funding that was cast by Republicans (often dishonestly) as powering a massive new bureaucracy aimed at scrutinizing average Americans. And now here’s the IRS talking about using deadly force.

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The idea that the IRS is up to something has been percolating for months. In early June, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) appeared on Fox News to discuss a viral story about the IRS purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ammunition.

“I imagine the IRS in green eyeshades and cubicles — not busting doors down and emptying Glock clips on our fellow Americans,” Gaetz said. “Certainly it’s troubling that in 2022 alone, the IRS has spent around $725,000 on ammunition.” He claimed that President Biden’s plan was, among other things, to “disarm Americans” but “still collect your taxes, and they need $725,000 worth of ammunition, apparently, to get the job done.”

He wasn’t alone.

The idea that the government is buying so much ammunition that Americans are unable to do so is not a new one. There were similar rumblings in 2013 under President Barack Obama. Every so often, someone notices that federal law enforcement agencies like the IRS buy ammunition to carry out their duties and the scale of those purchases raises eyebrows. Then people forget about it again. Did the IRS buy hundreds of thousands of dollars of ammo this year? Yes. Does it do that every year? Yes. From 2010 to 2017, for example, it averaged about $675,000 in purchases a year.

This week, the rhetoric about the IRS increased several degrees. In part, that’s because of the Senate’s passage of the IRA and the House’s upcoming vote on Friday. But it’s also probably in part because of the FBI search of former president Donald Trump’s Florida home. That search, approved by Attorney General Merrick Garland and a federal judge, triggered an immediate partisan backlash against the FBI and federal law enforcement more broadly. Journalists who track right-wing rhetoric noticed an uptick in calls for armed opposition — and highlighted examples of members of armed groups focusing on the IRS in particular.

In one example, a man shows off a number of firearms — and mentions how much ammunition the IRS is buying. In October 2020, while Trump was still president, the Department of Homeland Security pointed to domestic violent extremists as one of the most potent threats facing the country.

This rhetoric about the IRS, though, isn’t confined to the fringe. Appearing on Fox News on Thursday morning, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), once as robust an example of sober institutional conservatism as you might find on Capitol Hill, used similarly aggressive language to impugn the tax-collection agency.

“Are they going to have a strike force that goes in with AK-15s already loaded, all ready to shoot some small-business person in Iowa with these?” he asked rhetorically, apparently meaning AR-15s. “Because I think they’re going after middle-class and small-business people.”

The bleak answer is: Yes, the IRS is probably fully prepared to execute an enforcement action against a small-business owner who violates the law. But that’s not what Grassley’s saying. Instead, up for reelection in November, he’s trying to score points with Fox News’s audience by casting the IRS as nefarious.

A few hours later, the chairwoman of the Republican Party, Ronna McDaniel, offered her own take on the IRS threat.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that 1) “the Democrats” have no say in assigning the IRS’s law enforcement arm, 2) the IRS is uninterested in your kid’s lemonade stand unless it starts pulling in hundreds of dollars of income and 3) if it actually chose to crack down on a kid for not paying taxes on his extraordinarily lucrative lemonade-selling business, it wouldn’t need men with “AK-15s” to do so.

What’s essential to notice here is that McDaniel and Grassley are portraying the IRS as the Biden administration’s secret police in much the same way as the guy who identifies himself as being from an armed group. The Republican officials’ motivation is the same: to appeal to a group of Americans who are primed to see the IRS as a nefarious, dangerous entity. It’s a sales pitch, based on arguing that the IRS can’t be trusted and is out to impose on Americans physically as well as economically.

Both McDaniel and the guy claiming to run a militia are trying to gin up support — McDaniel for votes and the guy for foot soldiers. Their target audience is left to decide which might provide a more useful backstop against a putative IRS army that’s about to kick in their door.

Update: Fox News host Brian Kilmeade continued the pattern on Thursday night. Filling in for Tucker Carlson, Kilmeade suggested that agents from the criminal investigation unit were perhaps “a little like James Bond, but instead of hunting down evil maniacs, these agents hunt down and kill middle-class taxpayers that don’t pay enough?”

“It’s Joe Biden’s new army,” he added.