How to Audit the President

A little-noticed section of the Internal Revenue Manual spells out the procedure in excruciating detail.
Updated on

Richard Nixon is pictured.

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

The presidency is laden with perks: the jet, the mansion, the personal chef. 

But there's some nastiness, too, awaiting the winner of the 2016 election, namely: mandatory audits from the Internal Revenue Service. The tax returns of the commander-in-chief and the vice president get automatic annual scrutiny from the IRS. Compare that to the 1 in 49 audit rate for everyone else in the $200,000 to $500,000 income bracket. 

What got us poking around on this question was a set of documents released from Bill Clinton's presidential library last week, showing White House lawyers preparing for his second consecutive audit amid questions about the Whitewater real estate deal in Arkansas. The audit requirement is so obscure that one former, very senior IRS official didn't even recall it when we started asking questions.

The little-noticed section of the Internal Revenue Manual spells out — in excruciating detail if you want to read it — the procedures for auditing the president. The returns get sent to the IRS offices in Austin, Texas, where employees are under orders to process them with precision, making sure that all "edit marks and stamps are neatly placed on the returns, because they will remain permanent documents in the National Archives."

Even though recent presidents have released their returns publicly, IRS rules require employees to take extra care with the paperwork. How detailed? "The returns should be kept in an orange folder at all times," the manual says. "The returns should be locked in a secure drawer or cabinet when the examiner is away from the work area."

Special treatment of the president's tax returns is a long-standing practice at the IRS, and with good reason: a flub with the most high-profile taxpayer can cause blowback for the agency. Richard Nixon's paperwork — including his 1973 announcement of a problem-free audit and questions about his deductions for donating his vice presidential papers — were a part of the scandals that brought down his presidency.

There is a way out, if one presidential hopeful gets his way. Ted Cruz, you may recall, wants to abolish the IRS. That would take care of the mandatory audits.