Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday attempted to clarify his recent comment comparing the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo during a fundraiser in Vermont. However, the governor may instead have reignited a controversy that has made national headlines.
During an interview with a reporter from the Burlington weekly Seven Days, LePage said the IRS wasn’t as bad as the Gestapo, the Nazi police force that imprisoned and murdered millions of Jews during World War II, but the agency was headed in that direction.
“What I am trying to say is the Holocaust was a horrific crime against humanity and, frankly, I would never want to see that repeated,” LePage said. “Maybe the IRS is not quite as bad — yet.”
Seven Days reporter Paul Heintz asked, “But they’re headed in that direction?”
LePage responded, “They’re headed in that direction.”
Heintz then asked LePage if he knew what the Gestapo did during World War II. LePage said, “Yeah, they killed a lot of people.” Heintz asked if he thought the IRS was going to kill a lot of people.
“Yeah,” LePage said.
“They’re headed in the direction of killing a lot of people? Are you serious?” Heintz asked.
LePage said he was “very serious,” adding that the agency would be rationing health care.
“They ration health care in Canada,” LePage said. “That’s why a lot of people from Canada come down to the U.S.”
LePage first compared the IRS to the Gestapo on Saturday during his weekly radio address. He later backtracked on the comments, following an outcry from Jewish and other groups. The head of the IRS workers union also demanded an apology, saying such rhetoric could endanger employees.
LePage’s most recent remarks came Thursday, at a fundraiser for Vermont GOP gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock.
Brock later accused Heintz of not asking fair questions, an assessment repeated by LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. She did not attend the event, but said Thursday it was clear that Heintz “had an agenda.”
Bennett said LePage’s chief concern is that health care might be rationed under the law. LePage did not mean to keep repeating the comparison to the Gestapo, she said. What the governor fears is that rationing under the Affordable Care Act might leave elderly people without care, and LePage had tried to convey that concern when he clarified his remarks later in Thursday’s interview, Bennett said.
According to the Times Argus in Montpelier, Vt., Brock had a separate news conference after the LePage interview, during which he attempted to distance himself from his guest’s remarks.
“Those are not words I would use,” said Brock. “I believe that he may have been using hyperbole, but in point of fact it’s not something I said, it’s not something I believe, it’s not something that I would say.”
Brock did say that LePage was a friend.
Heintz asked LePage if he thought his comments were insensitive.
LePage said, “Well, let’s put it this way. I apologize to Jewish Americans if they feel offended. But I also apologize to Japanese Americans that were put in prison during World War II, and I also apologize to those people that were accused of being communists during McCarthyism, because that’s not the American way.”
Heintz then asked if he thought the IRS would imprison people.
LePage said: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know that I’m a product of the American dream. I came from nothing and have been modestly successful. I have not had to worry about the IRS telling me I have to do things. I’d like to have my independence.”
When the reporter later asked Brock about LePage’s comments, LePage jumped back into the interview to clarify his remarks.
“Do I think that the IRS is intentionally going to kill someone? No,” LePage said. “Do I think the (Affordable Care Act) is going to force rationing on American people? Yes.”
LePage said he was referring to the rationing of health care that he says occurs in Canada.
Congressional Republicans have made similar claims about rationing in the Affordable Care Act. The claims refer to the health care law’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, which critics say can ration care and deny Medicare claims.
However, the Affordable Care Act only empowers the advisory board to make systemwide recommendations to reduce Medicare spending, not on individual cases, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The analysis also said that the advisory board was designed to reduce Medicare spending, and that the board’s recommendations can be overruled by Congress.
PolitiFact, a nonpartisan organization that fact-checks statements by politicians, recently deemed that a similar rationing claim made by Florida Gov. Rick Scott was false.
LePage’s first Gestapo reference drew a parallel between the Nazi secret police force and the IRS, which will assess tax penalties on individuals who don’t follow the federal health care law’s requirement to buy health insurance.
Some opponents of the law have said the IRS plans to hire 16,500 agents to enforce the mandate. The agency has disputed that figure, saying it plans to hire closer to 1,200 employees, many of whom would build the technological infrastructure to support payments and tax credits for individuals and small businesses.
During the Vermont interview, LePage told Heintz that the court decision on the health care law “robbed an awful lot of freedom because we’re going to be told what we have to do.”
He added, “Never in the history of this country have we been told that we have to do something, particularly in the commercial market.”
LePage’s first reference to the “Gestapo” angered local and national Jewish organizations.
He personally apologized to Emily Chaleff, director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, earlier this week. Chaleff declined to comment on the governor’s recent remarks, saying that she was scheduled to meet with LePage in person today.
Derrek Shulman, New England director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the governor’s comments in Vermont showed that “he doesn’t get it.”
“He has not heard the deep concerns of his constituents and from people around the world,” Shulman said.
Colleen Kelley, president of the IRS union, said in a written statement that it was “extremely disappointing and distressing to witness not only the continuing refusal of Maine Gov. Paul LePage to apologize for his gratuitous insult directed at IRS employees, but to see him continue his attacks at a fundraising event.”
She added, “I would hope the governor would take the time to reflect on the importance and dignity of the office he holds, the responsibility it imparts to him as the individual holding that office, and the harmful impact his words have on hard-working federal employees.”
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said the governor “crossed a threshold” with Thursday’s comments.
“While we’ve become all too familiar with his offensive one-liners, this is the first time he has gone all-in on unhinged conspiracy theories and eliminated any notion that he is remorseful about anything that has come out of his mouth,” Grant said. “It’s not even clear that he understands why his comments are controversial.”
Grant added, “I can’t say it more simply than this: Governor LePage’s fitness to hold office must now be seriously and openly questioned.”
While Grant condemned LePage’s comments, the Democratic Party used them as a fundraising opportunity to bolster its efforts to retake the Legislature. An email sent Thursday to party supporters read, “Stop him (LePage) in 2012. Send him home in 2014.”
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation did not respond to requests for comment.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: