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A History Of Presidential Tax Returns


Some House Democrats are eager to use their new majority and the power that comes with it to demand that President Trump release his tax returns. That could be problematic for the president, as Richard Nixon discovered when his taxes were revealed, causing him to make one of his most famous statements.


RICHARD NIXON: I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their president's a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got.

INSKEEP: Presidential tax returns are the subject this week as we #AskCokie. Commentator Cokie Roberts joins us each week to talk about how the government and politics work.

Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve - good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Good to talk with you, too - our first listener wants to know what the law requires here. Susan Diskin asks, does the Ethics in Government Act require disclosure of tax returns? And if so, why do we not have Trump's?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) No law does require it. The law that some House members want to employ to force the IRS to turn over Trump's returns is a very obscure section of the tax code. And it allows the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to demand any tax filer's returns. It dates back to the Teapot Dome scandals of the 1920s, when members of the Harding administration were accepting bribes. Congress had to rely on the executive for financial information, so they made this law. It's been rarely used. But the Republican members of the Ways Means Committee did employee it a few years ago when they were investigating what they called the IRS' discrimination against conservative organizations.

INSKEEP: OK. So there's a law that can be used to get the tax returns. But no law automatically requires their release, which leads to our next question.

JEFF ZULLO: This is Jeff Zullo of Cleveland, Ohio. When did the general public first see a presidential candidate's and a president's tax records?

ROBERTS: Well, Richard Nixon's were the first. Nixon didn't initially turn over his returns voluntarily. They were leaked by someone in the IRS.


ROBERTS: And they revealed - yeah - that the president had paid very little in taxes. That led to his I'm not a crook statement. By the way, the reporter who published the returns won the Pulitzer Prize.

INSKEEP: And now there is a question about presidents since Nixon.

JUDITH CORAM: Hello. My name is Judith Coram in Spokane, Wash. Other than Trump, has any president refused to reveal his taxes?

ROBERTS: It's been standard from Nixon on for presidents and presidential candidates to let the public see what they've paid, but not everyone has handled it the same way. Gerald Ford, Nixon's successor, provided a summary of his taxes. Some candidates have just turned over a couple of years' worth of documents. Others have provided returns for many years. But none has totally stonewalled the way Trump has.

INSKEEP: So every president since Nixon has had to release something. Here's a question about the political effects.

SAM COOK: Hi, Cokie. This is Sam Cook from Portsmouth, N.H. Are there instances of tax returns directly hurting a candidate?

ROBERTS: Well, Nixon certainly got into hot water over his. And he was charged more than $400,000 in back taxes. The Clintons had to hand over more money to the IRS because underreporting on the Whitewater deal. And clearly, Steve, even though big majorities of voters tell pollsters that Trump should turn over his returns, the president must think there's a political downside to doing it because he hasn't done it.

INSKEEP: Indeed. Thanks very much, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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