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How Trump got yanked into GOP's IRS impeachment fight

House Freedom Caucus members were gearing up for a floor fight Tuesday to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen when one of the group’s leaders, Rep. Jim Jordan, received an unexpected phone call from Reince Priebus.

Priebus, the new chief of staff for President-elect Donald Trump, asked Jordan (R-Ohio) to hold off on the effort to remove Koskinen, sources close to the matter said. The impeachment drive had been a long-running source of tension between Republican leaders who feared it was an abuse use of congressional oversight, and conservatives who believed Koskinen lied to them and deserved to be punished.

In the frenzied hours as the impeachment showdown neared, multiple conversations ensued between Priebus and Freedom Caucus leaders. There are conflicting accounts of where the outgoing Republican Party chairman came down.

GOP leaders say Priebus remained opposed to Koskinen’s impeachment. Freedom Caucus sources counter that Priebus called them back several times to retract any such opposition and say Trump’s inner circle would remain neutral.

Trump transition officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

The House ultimately voted against impeaching Koskinen, who has been under fire by conservatives for his handling of the aftermath of the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, which exploded into a scandal in early 2013. Technically, the issue was referred back the Judiciary Committee, where it will die quietly, at least for the time being.

Yet the incident demonstrates how much has changed already for Capitol Hill Republicans. Trump is the master of the GOP universe now, and everything done in Congress will be viewed through the lens of whether it helps or hurts the incoming president.

In this case, getting involved in Koskinen’s fate could be a dicey one for Trump personally. During the presidential campaign, Trump refused to release his tax returns because of an ongoing IRS audit, which apparently is still ongoing.

Trump and Koskinen also have a personal relationship that goes back to the 1970s in New York City. Koskinen was involved in helping arrange the sale of the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan to Trump, a deal that helped launch Trump’s lucrative business career, according to a May 5, 1976, article in The New York Times.

Freedom Caucus sources say the back-and-forth over Koskinen shows that party leaders will use Trump and his inner circle as a lever against them. They fear that after years of bucking Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and their top lieutenants, GOP leaders will point to a Trump-run White House to justify their positions and try to steamroll the group as it tries to push the party’s agenda to the right.

The group also argues that Trump is not against impeachment. They say Republican leaders were just trying to use Trump to justify their opposition to impeachment.

“It’s blatantly false to suggest that the Trump camp opposed the move to impeach the IRS commissioner and that they conveyed anything of the sort to the Freedom Caucus,” said a source close to the group. “That narrative is certainly not coming from Trump Tower.”

A House Freedom Caucus source said Jordan contacted Ryan’s office about 10 days ago to tell him the group would move to impeach Koskinen. Jordan floated the idea of censuring Koskinen — a less severe punishment — as a middle ground.

The source said Ryan’s office was noncommittal on the censure idea. So Freedom Caucus members notified leadership Tuesday morning that they intended to force the issue on the floor later that day, as they’ve been threatening to do for almost a year now.

According to multiple sources, Ryan staffers contacted Priebus and urged him to weigh in on the Koskinen dispute. Ryan and other top House Republicans said they were worried that impeaching Koskinen would trigger a Senate trial for the IRS commissioner in early 2017 that could eat up weeks of Senate floor time, potentially impeding Trump’s early agenda. Plus, most of the House Republican Conference had no interest in voting on this sensitive matter, which many felt pitted them between their base and their conscience.

A top House Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Ryan’s office had reached out to the Trump team “to get them to say something to the Freedom Caucus on this. We can’t have the Senate just bogged down on this trial.”

Senior Republicans view many of the Freedom Caucus’ moves — including the Koskinen impeachment vote — as public relations stunts. They believe the group is more interested in headlines than passing legislation or doing serious oversight work.

Freedom Caucus members see it differently. Whether it’s Ryan or former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom they forced out of office, GOP leaders often lack the political courage to do battle with progressives, they say.

AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, would not comment on Ryan or his staffers’ interactions with Priebus. But she did note that the House voted overwhelmingly to send the Koskinen issue back to the Judiciary panel.

“The majority of the House voted to refer this matter to the Judiciary Committee consistent with regular order because it would have triggered automatic consideration lasting into next year, filling up weeks of floor time and crippling our ability to hit the ground running on Trump administration confirmations and Obamacare repeal,” Strong said in a statement.

For the Freedom Caucus and their supporters, forcing Koskinen out of office has been a long and frustrating exercise. “John Koskinen has been able to get away with stonewalling Congress, obstructing justice and breaching the public trust. It’s time that Congress held him accountable for his actions,” Jordan said in his floor speech on the impeachment motion.

Freedom Caucus members and aides denied that a Senate trial would stall Trump’s legislative agenda, or that a way around any potential obstacles couldn’t be found. That’s what they say they told Priebus when he initially called to ask them to stand down.

A source familiar with their conversations said Priebus called back later Tuesday to clarify that Trump’s team was not against impeachment and would remain neutral.

“It’s ludicrous to suggest a president who ran on draining the swamp would oppose the impeachment of an IRS commissioner who targeted some of the very same people who voted for him,” said a Freedom Caucus member.

Sometime that afternoon, the Freedom Caucus source said Priebus asked the group to consider censuring Koskinen as a compromise. The group’s leaders took that idea to Ryan’s office, though Jordan had already publicly announced the group’s intention to force impeachment on the floor that evening.

Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) floated the idea of censure again during a meeting between Ryan and a group of GOP lawmakers Tuesday around lunchtime, the source said. But Republican leaders rejected that alternative, the person said, so the Freedom Caucus decided to go full bore for impeachment.

Leadership members and aides, however, remember the conversations differently, denying that HFC members really offered an olive branch with a censure option.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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