Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said recently that the Internal Revenue Service is targeting him because of his religious beliefs.
All high-profile presidential candidates are expected to release their tax returns at some point during the campaign, but Trump had not yet done so as of early March. He claimed he wasn’t able to because he is a frequent target of audits – although it’s unclear why that would prevent him making his returns public.
“As far as my return, I want to file it, except for many years, I’ve been audited every year,” Trump told CNN. “Twelve years or something like that. Every year they audit me, audit me, audit me… I will absolutely give my return, but I’m being audited now for two or three [years’ worth] now so I can’t.”
As Trump’s political rivals put increasing pressure on the reality television star to be transparent about his personal finances, Trump came up with a rather unexpected reason for his supposed “persecution” by the IRS.
Asked by CNN why the IRS might be picking on him, Trump replied, “Maybe because of the fact that I am a strong Christian… you see what’s happened, you have many religious groups complaining about that.”
Even if Trump, a Presbyterian, does consider himself a “strong” Christian, it’s not likely that fact would be of any interest to the IRS. The IRS doesn’t track the religious beliefs of individual taxpayers.
But Trump wasn’t content to simply claim he is being persecuted. He went on to say that if he wins the presidency, he will work to overturn a federal law that bars partisan political activity by houses of worship and other nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status.
“I am gonna work like hell to get rid of that prohibition, and we are gonna have the strongest Christian lobby, and it’s gonna happen…,” Trump said during a rally in Texas. “This took place during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and it has had a terrible chilling effect…. Now we’re gonna get rid of that. We’re gonna work very hard. That’s one of the first things I want to do. I want to get rid of that, and politically if we use that power, we’re gonna start going, go up up up, because we are being decimated. So just remember that. Just remember I said it.”
Trump missed the mark on the facts. While Lyndon Johnson did push for the ban on partisan political activity by non-profit entities, he did so as a U.S. senator in 1954 – nearly a decade before he became president.
Trump also said he would change the regulation because a group of pastors came to him with a story about how they wanted to endorse him but were afraid to do so because they might risk their church’s tax exemption. In reality, pastors are free to make individual endorsements of candidates as long as they don’t use church resources in any way.