Behind the lie of ‘87,000 armed agents’: How an obscure factoid was bent into a popular GOP talking point

Amid a spike in threats against federal law enforcement, Republicans place their sights on an old target: the Internal Revenue Service.

A strange, false claim is all over conservative cable TV, right-wing social media and in the halls of Congress, where it’s been repeated by dozens of Republican lawmakers: President Joe Biden, the warning goes, is going to hire and arm 87,000 Internal Revenue Service agents to target everyday Americans.

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As the head of the Republican National Committee hyperbolically tweeted recently: “How long until Democrats send the IRS ‘SWAT team’ after your kids’ lemonade stand?”

The tale of how the tale of 87,000 armed agents made it into mainstream political dialogue began last May on the website of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative advocacy group run by anti-tax fixture, Grover Norquist. And while it was repeated occasionally from then to now, it exploded in recent weeks following relentless efforts by a cross-section of the Republican firmament to promote the false claim on social media, in right-wing broadcasts and in the halls of Congress.

“This is kind of the fever pitch of targeting the IRS since the Tea Party movement,” Dr. A.J. Bauer, a professor at the University of Alabama who has studied the conservative media environment, told Grid.

“As the Republican Party has drifted rightward, including openly affiliating with militia organizations like Oath Keepers and the likes of Ammon Bundy, it has started associating with folks who harbor conspiratorial fantasies about the IRS and who are primed to think that the federal government is coming for them.”

Since the beginning of July, Republican members of Congress have tweeted the “87,000 agents” lie hundreds of times, garnering millions of impressions, a Grid analysis found. Fox News personalities and guests have repeated it so frequently — over 90 times this month alone — that in one 48-hour period, the network broadcast the fabrication in virtually every hour of its coverage, according to the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer.

The genesis of a falsehood

The Republican claim is not new: GOP lawmakers and their allies have made such false allegations about the 87,000 IRS agents since May 2021, Grid found.

Grid traced the origin of the lie to an article produced by a conservative anti-tax group in May 2021.

“Biden Plans to Hire 87,000 New IRS Agents, Enough to Fill Nats Park Twice,” read the headline of the article, published online by Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a Republican-friendly advocacy group helmed by Norquist. ATR appears to have been inspired by a figure buried in a Treasury Department proposal, which floated an increase of 86,852 full-time employees by 2031.

“President Biden would also spend your taxes to double the size of the IRS over the next decade, adding almost 87,000 new employees at a cost of nearly $80 billion,” she said on June 9, 2021, before changing her statement. “You heard that right — 87,000 new IRS agents.”

Norquist, his organization and Ernst did not respond to requests for comment.

A falsehood returns

Even as warnings of violence have multiplied and fact-checkers debunked their claims, GOP lawmakers and right-wing outlets have doubled down on their strategy, further amplifying and embellishing their original misleading claims.

Even senior, respected Republican figures have amplified the falsehood. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked on Fox and Friends on Aug. 11 whether the IRS would “have a strike force that goes in with AK-15′s [sic] already loaded ready to shoot some small business person in Iowa.”

Grassley earned an immediate rebuke from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The two men have shared oversight responsibilities over the IRS, as chair and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. “The incendiary conspiracy theories Republicans are pushing about armed IRS agents are increasingly dangerous and out of control,” Wyden said in a statement released on Aug. 12. “High-ranking Republicans, including the former chair of the Finance Committee” — an apparent reference to Grassley — “are saying shockingly irresponsible things.”

Grassley did not respond to requests for comment.

IRS agents in the crosshairs

Representatives for IRS employees have expressed alarm over the GOP’s persistent false claims about them and their agency.

“There is a concern on the part of some members that this negative, inaccurate information could ultimately result in some IRS employees being seriously hurt,” Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told Grid. “IRS employees are federal employees who have taken an oath to the Constitution. They do not deserve to be characterized in that manner,” Readon said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), nonetheless cranked up the temperature by targeting his political opponents.

Neither Scott nor McCarthy responded to requests for comment.

Platforms take note

Too late, some platforms may be taking notice of the deluge of dangerous falsehoods. Instagram has begun labeling some memes that include the “87,000 IRS Agents” claim as “missing context.”

“It is highly irresponsible for people to make false statements about IRS workers,” said Reardon. “This is a workforce that collects the money to fund national defense and public services.”

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