Past & Present: Presidential Tax Returns

May 28, 2019

Individual income tax returns, including those of public figures, are private information protected by law from unauthorized disclosure. But since the early 1970s, most presidential and vice presidential candidates, as well as sitting presidents and vice presidents, have released their tax returns for public scrutiny.

This greater transparency grew out of a scandal associated with the presidency of Richard Nixon. During the midst of the Watergate debacle, journalists discovered Nixon had taken excessive deductions on his individual tax returns. Specifically, Nixon paid just less than $800 in federal income taxes in 1970 and less than $900 in 1971, although he had personal income of more than $200,000 in both years.

Since then, both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have voluntarily disclosed their tax information to the American public. Senator Robert Dole of Kansas holds the record in this regard. During his 1996 presidential campaign, he disclosed his previous 30 years of tax returns. In 2016, Hillary Clinton disclosed her previous 24 years of returns.

Considering this history, we should be troubled by Donald Trump’s continued refusal as both candidate and president to disclose his tax returns, now with the assistance of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Especially since partial revelations regarding how Trump has handled his taxes appear to make Richard Nixon’s skullduggery look miniscule by comparison.