Did Republicans just walk into a trap laid by Democrats looking to bring down President Trump by any means necessary?
It sure looks like it. After nearly four years of failed attempts to kneecap the president through bitterly partisan investigations, Democrats and several liberal-leaning groups are unleashing a smear campaign against Trump’s use of a legal tax incentive meant to promote private land conservation that now appears to have been more than a couple years in the making — and strategically orchestrated to escalate during a critical phrase of the presidential campaign.
But this time, it appears that some Republicans have been snookered into playing along.
The gambit by Democrats kicked into full gear last week, when a powerful Senate committee released a report on conservation easements done by investor partnerships which allow private landowners to voluntarily restrict development of a piece of property and entrust a nonprofit conservancy with ensuring its permanent preservation.
It’s a win for the environment as well as local communities, and taxpayers benefit by being able to claim a deduction in what they owe the Internal Revenue Service based on the foregone development value — one of the rare government programs that works as intended.
That’s why the incentive has enjoyed bipartisan support since its inception in 1979 and was significantly enhanced as recently as 2015.
In the report, the Senate Finance Committee tries desperately to intuit instances of taxpayers misusing the incentive. Lawmakers point time and time again to the high value in deductions claimed by taxpayers as somehow being indicative of wrongdoing. But that inference is absurd on its face: If taxpayers donate high-value land — say, land rich in natural resources that could be turned into a lucrative commercial mining operation — of course they are going to receive a high-value deduction.
That’s precisely the point of the law, not a distortion of it.
Thus, the report’s 183 pages make for a confusing read — until you consider the release of court papers just hours before the report was released (also on the first day of the Republican National Convention) and the subsequent feeding frenzy among Democrats, progressive groups, and the mainstream media.
Those court records showed that the New York attorney general’s office is pursuing subpoenas against the president, demanding documents related to a number of Trump properties, including two golf courses where Trump used conservation easements to preserve parts of the land. In the days that followed, attention turned almost exclusively to Trump’s use of the tax incentives.
In this context, it becomes clear that the president’s opponents have a vested interest in maligning this successful conservation program now. And the politicization of it all raises an important question: Did Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee goad Republicans to pursue this fishing expedition as a way to manufacture more scrutiny of the president’s finances? Did Chairman Chuck Grassley, the Chairman of the committee, get duped by Democrat Ron Wyden, the Ranking Member of the committee and a determined foe of President Trump?
And were Senate Democrats acting on a larger strategy by the party to take more circuitous paths to obtain the president’s financial records? Indeed, on July 2, the House Ways and Means Committee, which is led by a Democrat, sued the Treasury Department in an attempt to get its hands on President Trump’s tax returns.
In the complaint, the committee cites “media reports” that show “President Trump benefited from massive conservation easements.” It goes on to slam the president for “’brilliantly’ maneuvering the tax laws to his personal benefit.”
Vilifying Trump’s use of easements, in other words, is central to the Democrats’ case.
The coordinated campaign against conservation easements also sheds new light on the IRS’s increasingly aggressive tactics against taxpayers who claim the deduction. The agency ramped up court cases against such taxpayers in 2016 by, as one litigator so aptly describes, beginning to play taxpayer gotcha with hyper-technical disqualifications, instead of following the law and enforcing substantial compliance with the tax code.
Last year, the IRS announced criminal investigations into the matter. The National Taxpayers Union hit the nail on the head when the group called the IRS’s tactics “abusive.” And a prominent expert in conservation easements was right when he said recently that the IRS’s increasingly “creative and aggressive” methods amount to an “unreasonable and unnecessary injustice” for taxpayers.
Further, the timing of the IRS’s efforts could expose the agency to new accusations of playing favorites, just years after it was forced to apologize for going after conservative groups.
It remains an open question whether the Senate Finance Committee’s inquiry was driven, at least in part, by animosity toward the president, and it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions about what the IRS is up to. But what is absolutely clear is that Democrats seem ready to weaponize the president’s perfectly legal use of a successful conservation tool — today, 27 million acres of natural land in America are protected, as much as our five largest National Parks combined — to stir up negative coverage ahead of the election.
Jared Whitley is a long-time politico who has worked in the U.S. Congress, White House, and defense industry. He is an award-winning writer, having won best blogger in the state from the Utah Society of Professional Journalists (2018) and best columnist from Best of the West (2016). He earned his MBA from Hult International Business School in Dubai. Read Jared Whitley's reports — More Here.
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