Appointments and Executive Changes

I.R.S. Commissioner, Demonized by Conservatives, Leaves on His Terms

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Mr. Koskinen was already enjoying retirement in 2013 when the Obama administration asked him to take the helm of the I.R.S. during a crisis fueled by allegations that it had wrongfully scrutinized Tea Party groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. He was known as a Mr. Fix-It in Washington for his work at the Office of Management and Budget during the 1990s government shutdown, for heading the team that averted the Y2K crisis at the turn of the century and for leading Freddie Mac during the financial crisis. The I.R.S. was a challenge he could not refuse.

Four years later, Mr. Koskinen has weathered a fusillade of attacks. Threatened with censure and impeachment on the grounds that he was misleading Congress about the actions of his predecessors, the commissioner refused to be pushed out of the job.

“Not a chance,” Mr. Koskinen said when asked if he ever considered quitting.

His wry sense of humor remains intact. In his waning time, he jokes with his staff about all the “fun” of their daily tasks and counts down the days to his departure by tending to a makeshift pumpkin patch decorated with gourds bearing his likeness. Soon enough, Mr. Koskinen jokes as he distributes candy to a visitor, he will turn into a pumpkin and disappear.

Mr. Koskinen is spending his remaining days defending his agency’s integrity and drumming up funding for a department that has been running on dwindling resources. Mr. Koskinen took some solace in an inspector general report released last month that showed the I.R.S. had actually been scrutinizing both liberal and conservative groups, yet he remains concerned that the coarse treatment he received from members of Congress could discourage future public servants from taking such jobs.

“I do think it’s corrosive,” said Mr. Koskinen, who compared the I.R.S. targeting scandal to the furor over the attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, that led to investigations and congressional hearings. “When you have an issue that resonates, you don’t want that issue to go away.”

Earlier this year, Republicans were hopeful that Mr. Trump’s arrival would finally secure Mr. Koskinen’s dismissal. However, Mr. Koskinen and Mr. Trump have a good rapport, and the president took no action to remove him.

In fact, the two men have a long history together. In 1975, when Mr. Koskinen worked at the Palmieri Company, an asset management firm, he negotiated a deal with Mr. Trump over the sale of the Commodore Hotel in New York City from the bankrupt Penn Central Transportation Company.

The deal marked the beginning of Mr. Trump’s foray into the Manhattan property market, and Mr. Koskinen recalled haggling with him for months over the details of the transaction. He even offered Mr. Trump advice, counseling him not to broadcast that he was just 29 years old when he was casting about for a $70 million loan.

“He was irrepressible, energetic and fun to deal with,” Mr. Koskinen said.

While he has not spoken to Mr. Trump since they touched base before the inauguration, these days one of Mr. Koskinen’s top priorities has been protecting Mr. Trump’s tax returns. The president has refused to release his returns, and the documents have become the most sought-after leak in a capital that has never been so porous.

On the occasions that portions of Mr. Trump’s returns have trickled out into the public domain in the past year, Mr. Koskinen was relieved when he learned that it was not the fault of the I.R.S., which by law must keep taxpayers’ returns private.

“I told people to check what our process was and do whatever we could to isolate the returns,” Mr. Koskinen said. “We’ve had people offering bounties and people offering millions of dollars for them.”

Hard copies of Mr. Trump’s tax returns are kept in a locked cabinet in a special office at the I.R.S. headquarters. Mr. Koskinen said the cabinet would eventually be replaced with a safe.

With hackers rampant, Mr. Trump’s returns are not the only ones Mr. Koskinen is worried about. He said the agency gets more than a million “pings” per day from cyberattackers trying to gain access to taxpayer data, and he warned that budget cuts could make it difficult to safeguard the system.

Mr. Koskinen, who is a Democrat, said he hoped that the tension between Congress and the agency would abate once the Trump administration installed a successor.

Last month, the Treasury Department announced that David Kautter, its assistant secretary for tax policy, would serve as interim I.R.S. commissioner until Mr. Trump nominates someone to take the job for a full five-year term.

As for his own plans, Mr. Koskinen, who has a physics degree from Duke and a law degree from Yale, is keeping his options open. One possibility is that he will give retirement another try for a while.

“The plan,” he said, “is to not answer the phone.”

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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