Tucker Carlson’s dangerous lie that Biden is targeting his audience with “87,000 armed IRS agents”

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Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters 

Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed on Monday that the Biden administration is hiring “87,000 armed IRS agents to make sure you obey,” a wildly inflammatory and false claim that his network’s White House correspondent debunked a few days earlier.

Carlson returned from last week’s vacation with a wild rant about the FBI’s August 8 search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and residence, which uncovered 11 sets of classified documents, among other materials, that the former president took with him when he left the White House. The Fox host argued that the court-approved search was part of President Joe Biden’s “war on his own population,” specifically targeting “Trump voters” with “acts of aggression and hostility.” 

Carlson went on to declare that “just in case you missed the theme here, they're hiring another 87,000 armed IRS agents just to make sure that you obey. Got it?” He was referencing a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden will sign into law on Tuesday, which provides $80 billion in funding to the IRS over ten years to raise $124 billion over the same period through increased enforcement targeted at individuals with incomes greater than $400,000.

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Citation From the August 15, 2022, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

But the IRA does not specifically provide for the hiring of 87,000 agents, and it certainly doesn’t call for them to be armed. Carlson is mashing together two misleading talking points that the right has taken up as part of its defense of wealthy tax cheats who face increased enforcement.

In recent days, Republicans and their propagandists have endlessly complained that the IRA funds “87,000 new IRS agents.” But that’s not true, as the Associated Press noted in a fact-check:

Last year, before the bill emerged, the Treasury Department had proposed a plan to hire roughly that many IRS employees over the next decade if it got the money. The IRS will be releasing final numbers for its hiring plans in the coming months, according to a Treasury official. But those employees will not all be hired at the same time, they will not all be auditors and many will be replacing employees who are expected to quit or retire, experts and officials say.

The IRS currently has about 80,000 employees, including clerical workers, customer service representatives, enforcement officials, and others. The agency has lost roughly 50,000 employees over the past five years due to attrition, according to the IRS. More than half of IRS employees who work in enforcement are currently eligible for retirement, said Natasha Sarin, the Treasury Department’s counselor for tax policy and implementation.

Carlson, in claiming that the 87,000 new hires will all be “armed,” is glomming on to last week’s right-wing frenzy over an IRS job posting for “Criminal Investigation Special Agents” which stated that the hires will “carry a firearm and be willing to use deadly force, if necessary.” Some online conspiracy theorists incorrectly interpreted this as a signal that the 87,000 new IRS employees supposedly hired under the IRA would all carry guns.

In fact, as the AP noted, special agents with IRS Criminal Investigation, a division which dates to 1919 and is the only one in which employees are armed, only constitute about 2.5% of the service’s total staff. “The job description does not apply to most potential new employees that the IRS will hire in the coming years,” according to the AP.

Carlson’s “news side” colleague, White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich, also posted a Twitter thread on Saturday debunking the claim that he made two days later. She reported that, per a treasury official, “a tiny fraction of the agency’s new hires, ~1%,” would be armed special agents. She also pointed out that those agents work on “big public corruption, narcotics, and money laundering cases” and would “never” come in contact with “the average American.”

Heinrich has just under 93,000 followers on Twitter, while Carlson’s Fox show regularly attracts more than 3 million viewers.

Carlson’s falsehood follows a week of unhinged demagoguery from Fox and others in the right-wing media that links the new IRS funding with the Mar-a-Lago search as dark signs that the Biden administration has weaponized the government against Americans. Fox pundits have described the potential wave of IRS hiring as an “economic, financial militia against regular people” deployed by those who “want to control you”; a “new army” that will “hunt down and kill middle class taxpayers”; a “new Gestapo” Biden will use in an “abusive, corrupt manner”; “a Praetorian Guard that will be unleashed again” to “grab all the cash they can by any means necessary”; and “part of an orchestrated campaign to target Americans and have the federal government be at war with those Americans.”

The out-of-control tenor of right-wing attacks on the IRS has triggered concerns that its employees may be subject to violence. 

“Given the social media chatter we’re already seeing, it’s all too easy to imagine individuals using these conspiracy theories as justification for violence against public servants and their families,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement last week. “It’s unbelievable that we even need to say this, but there are not going to be 87,000 armed IRS agents going door-to-door with assault weapons. This is funding for answering phone calls and upgrading computer systems.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland, FBI director Christopher Wray, and the magistrate judge who signed off on the Mar-a-Lago search warrant have all received an uptick in death threats since last Monday’s search, leading to a joint intelligence bulletin from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security warning about the prospect of violence against federal officials. 

On Friday, an armed Trump supporter who had called for the murder of federal agents following the search attacked the FBI field office in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was later killed in a shoot-out with police.