Why Did Trump Go Birther and Run for President? An IRS Audit in 2010?

A remarkable coincidence emerges when one lines up the timeline of the New York Times’s Trump tax refund bombshell and Trump’s entry into national politics as a Birther. It appears Trump came out as a racist anti-Obama birther and floated the idea of running for president after the Obama IRS audited his 2010 tax refund ($73 million), and at almost the exact same time that the Obama IRS challenged the refund behind the scenes in Congress  in the spring of 2011.

One question is whether Trump’s turn to birtherism in March 2011 was initially an outburst of anger at being audited. Or was it a strategically political move before the news of the audit was public, so that Trump could make it appear that the Obama IRS audit was partisan retribution against a birther enemy? And did his entry into politics and floating the idea of running for president help him to tie up the audit review in Congress so that he could keep the $73 million check?

Running for president would have been a good way to slow down Congress’s review process of large refunds. Aggressively attacking Obama would have been a strategic move to keep the Obama IRS quiet, lest a leak of their audit after March 2011 would make it appear (wrongly) that they were investigating Trump in retribution. If this was Trump’s gambit, it appeared to have worked. And then, perhaps, it unintentionally snowballed over the next six years into Trump becoming a hero to the racist far-right, winning the 2016 nomintion, and winning the White House.

First, here is a timeline/excerpt from the New York Times of Trump’s 2010 refund and IRS audit from the New York Times, and then a timeline of Trump’s emergence as a birther in March 2011:

“[C]onfidential records show that starting in 2010 he claimed, and received, an income tax refund totaling $72.9 million — all the federal income tax he had paid for 2005 through 2008, plus interest.

“The legitimacy of that refund is at the center of the audit battle that he has long been waging, out of public view, with the I.R.S.

“The records that The Times reviewed square with the way Mr. Trump has repeatedly cited, without explanation, an ongoing audit as grounds for refusing to release his tax returns. He alluded to it as recently as July on Fox News, when he told Sean Hannity, “They treat me horribly, the I.R.S., horribly.”

“And while the records do not lay out all the details of the audit, they match his lawyers’ statement during the 2016 campaign that audits of his returns for 2009 and subsequent years remained open, and involved “transactions or activities that were also reported on returns for 2008 and earlier.”

“Mr. Trump harvested that refund bonanza by declaring huge business losses — a total of $1.4 billion from his core businesses for 2008 and 2009 — that tax laws had prevented him from using in prior years.

“…The records reviewed by The Times indicate that Mr. Trump filed for the first of several tranches of his refund several weeks later, in January 2010. That set off what tax professionals refer to as a “quickie refund,” a check processed in 90 days on a tentative basis, pending an audit by the I.R.S.  

“Records show that the results of an audit of Mr. Trump’s refund were sent to the joint committee in the spring of 2011. An agreement was reached in late 2014, the documents indicate, but the audit resumed and grew to include Mr. Trump’s returns for 2010 through 2013.” [END QUOTE]

Now let’s turn to the spring of 2011 in Trump’s political career. The first birther comments I can find are from March 17, 2011, just as he floats the idea of running for president. From Politico on Trump’s appearance on Good Morning America:

Trump seemed to throw his lot in with the discredited rumors that President Obama wasn’t born in America, saying he’s a “little” skeptical of Obama’s citizenship and that every so-called birther who shares the view shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed as an “idiot.” “Growing up no one knew him,” Trump told ABC’s “Good Morning America” during an interview aboard his private plane, Trump Force One. “The whole thing is very strange.” In the wide-ranging interview, Trump said he’s willing to spend up to $600 million on a presidential bid.

CNN then follows with a timeline of Trump’s birtherism escalating in March and April of 2011. On March 23, 2011, on “The View”: “Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate? There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.” March 28, 2011, on Fox News: “He’s spent millions of dollars trying to get away from this issue. Millions of dollars in legal fees trying to get away from this issue. And I’ll tell you what, I brought it up, just routinely, and all of a sudden a lot facts are emerging and I’m starting to wonder myself whether or not he was born in this country.”

March 30, 2011, on The Laura Ingraham Show: “He doesn’t have a birth certificate, or if he does, there’s something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me — and I have no idea if this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be — that where it says ‘religion,’ it might have ‘Muslim.’ And if you’re a Muslim, you don’t change your religion, by the way.” April 7, 2011 on NBC’s “Today” show: “I have people that have been studying [Obama’s birth certificate] and they cannot believe what they’re finding … I would like to have him show his birth certificate, and can I be honest with you, I hope he can. Because if he can’t, if he can’t, if he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility … then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.”

NBC reported that Trump had Michael Cohen working behind the scene with the National Enquirer in 2010 to plan the birther story. Perhaps Trump already knew, after submitting his request for the $73 million refund in January 2010, that an audit was automatic during the next three months (as the NY Times story explains) and he anticipated a political escalation. Or perhaps the Obama IRS had notified Trump that the audit was headed towards a more contested process in Congress.

According to the NY Times, Trump appeared to be financially desperate during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, after massive losses. He was appeared to be in dire need of the $73 million refund, and according to Michael Cohen, Trump knew that the refund was dubious. Cohen, testifying before Congress, “recalled Mr. Trump’s showing him a huge check from the U.S. Treasury some years earlier and musing ‘that he could not believe how stupid the government was for giving someone like him that much money back.’”

Perhaps all of this is just a coincidence.

However, going birther and flirting with a presidential run in 2011 would have been a politically and legally strategic move for a deeply indebted charlatan to hang on to the refund long enough, until another scheme emerged. And perhaps that scheme was a 2016 presidential run and the marketing, media, and foreign support it drew.

Or perhaps it is just as simple as a frightened and financially desperate racist initially having a temper tantrum over an audit by a Black man’s administration. 

Either way, it appears Trump’s fight with the IRS in 2010-2011 may have changed the course of history.

Author: Jed Shugerman

Legal historian at Fordham Law School, teaching Torts, Administrative Law, and Constitutional History. JD/PhD in History, Yale. Red Sox and Celtics fan, youth soccer coach. Author of "The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America" (2012) on the rise of judicial elections in America. I filed an amicus brief in the Emoluments litigation against Trump along with a great team of historians. I'm working on "The Rise of the Prosecutor Politicians," a history of prosecutors and political ambition (a cause of mass incarceration), and "The Imaginary Unitary Executive," on the myths and history of presidential power in America.

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