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Op-Ed | Slate | March 25, 2024

Why Biden Should Pardon the IRS Whistleblower Who Leaked Trump’s Taxes

2024 ElectionCorporate CrackdownCriminal JusticeEconomic PolicyTaxes
Why Biden Should Pardon the IRS Whistleblower Who Leaked Trump’s Taxes

And make billionaire corruption a defining issue of the 2024 presidential race.

This article was originally published by Slate.

There’s a strong moral case for President Joe Biden to pardon Charles Littlejohn, the former Internal Revenue Service contractor who was recently sentenced to five years in prison for leaking the tax records of Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and other billionaire tax cheats.

Over the past several years, Littlejohn’s whistleblowing enabled revelatory reporting by The New York Times and ProPublica on tax avoidance by the super-rich. Ideally, tax returns in the United States would be readily available to the public, as they are in multiple Nordic countries—a policy choice that has contributed to far less tax evasion and inequality.

But in the U.S., the hoarding of billions of dollars (trillions, if you count unrealized capital gains) by plutocrats—who have collectively lobbied for lower tax rates and deployed sophisticated techniques to ensure they end up paying less than teachers and nurses—has been willfully concealed.

It is only thanks to Littlejohn that we now know exactly how little the wealthiest people in the U.S. pay in taxes—and how much their squirreling away much-needed revenue through habitual tax avoidance is harming their fellow Americans. That’s a far more serious crime than the one committed by Littlejohn, who risked his freedom to expose a key facet of the rampant inequality subverting our democracy.

Biden should pardon Littlejohn because it would be wrong to let the 38-year-old languish behind bars for revealing fraudulent, and in some cases illegal, behavior that was never prosecuted. But also, because it’s good politics.

If Biden were to pardon the IRS whistleblower, Trump would almost certainly cry foul. That would be a good thing, or at least, nothing to shy away from, as it would allow Biden to make tax fairness a defining issue in the 2024 presidential race.

Making the wealthy pay their fair share through targeted tax hikes and stronger enforcement is overwhelmingly popular among voters of both major parties. There’s no doubt that Biden stands to gain from harping on tax avoidance by the ultra-rich and corporations. Biden stands to gain further from drawing attention to his administration’s efforts to curb the problem that Trump made worse in 2017 and plans to make even worse if he wins in November.

Indeed, Biden hit the right notes on this during his recent State of the Union address (including connecting a fairer tax system to the protection of Medicare and Social Security, which Trump and House Republicans have threatened to cut), and voters’ perception of him improved significantly. The question is how to effectively elevate and center this issue for the long haul.

To state what is perhaps obvious: Tax avoidance by the very wealthy is very bad for the country. A growing concentration of economic power is inseparable from a growing concentration of political power. Moreover, the huge loss in revenue limits the federal government’s capacity to carry out key work and curtails investments in lifesaving programs. As usual, Republicans are pushing to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy by imposing austerity on working households. Democrats should respond by pointing out all that could be done with more tax revenue, from restoring the expanded child tax credit and providing free preschool, to increasing public investments in affordable housing and clean energy, among many other things.

And it’s a live issue: Last month, a report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy showed how little the nation’s most profitable companies paid in taxes in the first five years after congressional Republicans passed Trump’s tax cuts. A more recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that 35 corporations paid their executives more than they paid the federal government in taxes from 2018 to 2022.

In office, Biden has pushed for a modest increase in the federal corporate tax rate, though he’s been stymied by a recalcitrant Congress. Nevertheless, he was able to secure a corporate minimum tax and increased resources to ensure that the wealthy pay more of what they already owe. The Treasury Department recently estimated that as long as the GOP’s ostensible fiscal hawks don’t cut its $80 billion funding boost, the IRS could collect at least $561 billion in additional revenue over the next decade. IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel said last month that millionaires and billionaires’ underreporting of income costs the country $150 billion per year. The agency has since announced that it is sending compliance letters to high-income individuals who have failed to even file taxes in 125,000 instances since 2017.

Despite the electorate’s righteous anger at blatant tax injustices, how many average voters are familiar with the Biden administration’s interventions on their behalf? How many know that Trump exacerbated unfairness during his presidency by further decimating IRS capacity, skewing audits toward the poor, and slashing corporate taxes? Or that he intends to make soon-to-expire provisions of his tax cuts permanent?

Now, imagine the spectacle of Trump claiming to be a victim and attacking Biden for showing leniency toward the whistleblower who laid bare the depravity of tax-dodging elites like himself. There’s no better way for Biden to place this crucial topic at the forefront of the news cycle than to provoke Trump with a virtuous pardon.

Some may bristle at the suggestion that Biden should pursue a politically beneficial pardon.

To clarify, I’m not advocating that Littlejohn be pardoned strictly for political reasons. There are straightforward moral grounds for Littlejohn’s absolution: U.S. laws shielding tax information from public scrutiny are unjust; his actions benefited the public by revealing outrageous facts the ruling class would have rather kept hidden; and in any case, a five-year sentence for leaking this information is indefensible.

But if pardoning Littlejohn aids Biden politically because it enables him to better contrast his progressive tax policies and proposals with Trump’s regressive giveaways, that’s a great bonus.

Trump, it’s worth noting, shamelessly pardoned Steve Bannon and others for purely political reasons and has promised to do so again. Pardoning hundreds of January 6 insurrectionists, as the would-be dictator has pledged to do if he’s elected in 2024, is not comparable to forgiving Littlejohn because the primary moral justification for reprieve is absent. Seditious rioters are in jail for good reason—their attempt to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss was a deadly assault on U.S. democracy.

Littlejohn’s unmasking of grotesque tax inequality, by contrast, was an attempt to make the U.S. more democratic, at great risk to himself. And that makes him one of the great political heroes of our time.

The above photo is courtesy of Friends of Charles Littlejohn.

2024 ElectionCorporate CrackdownCriminal JusticeEconomic PolicyTaxes

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