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The enemies list, then and now

One of the charges in the standard liberal narrative of the Nixon years — see, e.g., Stanley Kutler’s The Wars of Watergate — is Nixon’s misuse of the IRS to torment his political enemies.

I don’t know whether Nixon’s enemies list(s) was actually put to this use. Kutler reports in the text that Washington Post lawyer Edward Bennett Williams was audited three years running and adds in a footnote that the practice goes back to FDR. The IRS-related charge in any event made it into Count II of the articles of impeachment voted against Nixon. It was, not to belabor the point, a big deal, but that was then.

In April this year Kimberly Strassel cited Nixon in her column “The president has a list.” In this case the list consisted of donors to the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney. Strassel reported an alarming development brought to us by the Obama campaign, one occurring in broad daylight:

This past week, one of [Obama's] campaign websites posted an item entitled “Behind the curtain: A brief history of Romney’s donors.” In the post, the Obama campaign named and shamed eight private citizens who had donated to his opponent. Describing the givers as all having “less-than-reputable records,” the post went on to make the extraordinary accusations that “quite a few” have also been “on the wrong side of the law” and profiting at “the expense of so many Americans.”

These are people like Paul Schorr and Sam and Jeffrey Fox, investors who the site outed for the crime of having “outsourced” jobs. T. Martin Fiorentino is scored for his work for a firm that forecloses on homes. Louis Bacon (a hedge-fund manager), Kent Burton (a “lobbyist”) and Thomas O’Malley (an energy CEO) stand accused of profiting from oil. Frank VanderSloot, the CEO of a home-products firm, is slimed as a “bitter foe of the gay rights movement.”

Strassel noted that the Obama campaign’s conduct was unprecedented and raised a red flag:

His campaign brands you a Romney donor, shames you for “betting against America,” and accuses you of having a “less-than-reputable” record. The message from the man who controls the Justice Department (which can indict you), the SEC (which can fine you), and the IRS (which can audit you), is clear: You made a mistake donating that money.

Strassel was apparently on to something. This week Strassel returned to the case of Frank VanderSloot in “Obama’s enemies list — part II.” Mr. VanderSloot is getting the treatment that Richard Nixon could only dream of dishing out to his enemies:

Mr. VanderSloot has since been learning what it means to be on a presidential enemies list. Just 12 days after the [Obama campaign] attack, the Idahoan found an investigator digging to unearth his divorce records. This bloodhound—a recent employee of Senate Democrats—worked for a for-hire opposition research firm.

Now Mr. VanderSloot has been targeted by the federal government. In a letter dated June 21, he was informed that his tax records had been “selected for examination” by the Internal Revenue Service. The audit also encompasses Mr. VanderSloot’s wife, and not one, but two years of past filings (2008 and 2009).

Mr. VanderSloot, who is 63 and has been working since his teens, says neither he nor his accountants recall his being subject to a federal tax audit before. He was once required to send documents on a line item inquiry into his charitable donations, which resulted in no changes to his taxes. But nothing more—that is until now, shortly after he wrote a big check to a Romney-supporting Super PAC.

Two weeks after receiving the IRS letter, Mr. VanderSloot received another—this one from the Department of Labor. He was informed it would be doing an audit of workers he employs on his Idaho-based cattle ranch under the federal visa program for temporary agriculture workers.

Strassel aptly closes her column: “If this isn’t a chilling glimpse of a society Americans reject, it is hard to know what is. It’s why presidents are held to different rules, and should not keep lists. And it’s why Mr. Obama has some explaining to do.” Her email to the White House requesting comment has gone unanswered.

When Obama joked about siccing the IRS on his enemies back in 2009, Glenn Reynolds took to the pages of the Journal to make the elementary point that politically inspired tax audits are no laughing matter:

Paul Caron, a professor at the University of Cincinnati who writes the TaxProf blog, noted in response to Mr. Obama’s remarks that the law calls for the termination of IRS employees who make audit threats for illegitimate reasons. He suggested that Mr. Obama’s “joke” might be grounds for firing if he were an IRS employee.

He’s not, of course, but as the president his words carry much more weight and he should be much more careful.

Now what? For those of use who lived through Watergate, it must be at least slightly surprising how little attention Strassel’s columns have drawn. Our friends at Hot Air have taken note, as have our friends at Right Coast, and Glenn Reynolds has followed the story via TaxProf Blog. In his RC post, Tom Smith reasonably proposes:

A Congressional committee should get an IRS official on the hot seat about this ASAP. The White House using the IRS to intimidate political opponents is a serious, serious abuse of power. It might be a coincidence. Or it might be a quiet word from the WH to a political friend in the IRS. And the labor department as well. Idaho’s congressional delegation needs to get on this right now.

The mainstream media are of course missing in action. An election is looming and if it weren’t for double standards they wouldn’t have any at all.

UPDATE: Strassel talked about the VanderSloot case on this week’s edition of the Fox News Wall Street Journal Report.

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