Koskinen’s Defense Becomes Clearer at House Hearing

Chaffetz said members want more details on the Trump Organization's plans. (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

The House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday featuring Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen became a venue for Republicans to push their case that Koskinen should be removed from office. They want him out because of allegations that he lied to Congress and destroyed evidence related to the targeting of conservative tax-exempt groups.

Koskinen acknowledged Wednesday that he made a mistake in previous statements about the destruction of emails, but he noted that it wasn’t an impeachable offense.

Beyond defending Koskinen, Democrats mocked Republicans for pushing for the impeachment. They did this in part by asking Koskinen whether GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has broken federal tax laws.

Koskinen refused to take the bait on Democrats’ questions and reiterated that the agency cannot reveal individual taxpayer details to the public.

Republicans supportive of impeaching Koskinen said the hearing was successful in backing up their case to remove Koskinen from office. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a member of the Judiciary Committee and the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he is confident that the hearing will galvanize opposition to Koskinen’s position at the IRS’ helm.

Chaffetz said that he wants the House to pass a censure resolution against Koskinen, which he introduced this year. He also thinks the House should move forward with impeaching Koskinen. He also suggested that House members vote on censure before November’s election.

House GOP leaders have stopped short of supporting either move.

“He’s illuminating the idea that he did provide false testimony,” Chaffetz told reporters Wednesday. “The evidence mounts against him. It doesn’t diminish because he puts a happy face on.”

Chaffetz and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) both seemed particularly interested in a new claim from Koskinen about the destruction of digital records from former IRS employee Lois Lerner’s email account.

Koskinen told the committee that he sent a reminder to preserve documents in 2014. However, the message got “to everyone but two employees on the midnight shift” at an IRS facility in Martinsburg, W.Va., he said.

As a consequence, those two employees destroyed backup tapes from Lerner’s emails while the IRS was under a congressional subpoena to provide evidence related to Lerner. Rep. Jim Jordan, an IRS critic and the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, labelled Koskinen’s defense “the-old-midnight-shift-guys-in-Martinsburg excuse.”

Goodlatte also asked for Koskinen to provide written information backing up his claim.

Koskinen insisted that he did not know about the Martinsburg incident when he told the Oversight Committee in 2014 that the IRS hadn’t destroyed Lerner-related records.

Making that statement was a mistake, he said. But the top tax collector also insisted that the mistake isn’t worthy of resignation, dismissal, or removal from office.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top-ranking Democrat on the panel, predicted that the impeachment effort would fail because of the case that Koskinen has outlined. He also said the impeachment effort sets a dangerous precedent because impeachment is generally used as a bipartisan tool for behavior that everyone agrees is reprehensible. That has not occurred in Koskinen’s case.

“Never, in the history of this body, have we impeached a government official without first proving he has acted in deliberate bad faith,” Conyers said.

With Democrats all but assured to vote en bloc against Koskinen’s impeachment, the question of how much Republican support it gets is still open. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.)  told reporters after the hearing that he is still evaluating the merits of the claims against Koskinen and that he won’t take a position on impeachment until after as much information as possible has been presented.

“I am wired to hear from every witness who has information, and if the commissioner thinks there are people we ought to talk to, then we ought to talk to them,” Gowdy told reporters.

Beyond impeachment and censure, forcing Koskinen’s resignation is another option that could help Republicans achieve their goal of removing him from office.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) ran through a list of when the heads of agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of Personnel Management, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency have resigned because of scandals or mismanagement under their watches.

Rep. Dave Trott (R-Mich.) even connected Koskinen’s case to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) call on Tuesday for Wells Fargo & Co. chief executive John Stumpf to resign because of allegations of widespread fraud at the bank.

Koskinen, though, said he will continue to resist these calls and the impeachment effort because of the precedent issue.

“I do not think that the honest mistakes made by two employees are grounds for either resignation, and certainly not for impeachment,” Koskinen told the committee. “If, in fact, every time an employee makes a honest mistake in an agency, the expectation is that the head of that agency should resign, we’re not going to have many agency heads around.”

Morning Consult