All the Presidents' Taxes
Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton and author of “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.”
Donald Trump has made history. As you've probably heard, he's the first president – indeed, the first major party nominee – to refuse to offer an accounting of his finances in over four decades. The issue has dogged him in the past, and looks like it won't be going away: This week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the president's hopes for comprehensive tax reform will be "much harder" if he refuses to release them. "So for his own good, he ought to make them public," he said. "And the big mystery is why he hasn't." And while theories abound as to what that mystery entails, the roots of the controversy lie in Disney World.
The custom of candidates releasing their federal tax returns, in whole or in part, dates back to one of the lowest points of the Watergate scandal. In November 1973, President Richard Nixon was on the ropes. The Watergate investigation had battered him for more than a half year, but the previous month had been particularly brutal. On October 10, Vice President Spiro Agnew – under investigation for political corruption that occurred when he was the "law-and-order" governor of Maryland – resigned in disgrace, pleading guilty to federal tax evasion in exchange for having larger charges dismissed. Just 10 days later, the nation was stunned by the "Saturday Night Massacre," when Nixon's efforts to fire the special prosecutor investigating his administration shockingly prompted resignations of his attorney general and deputy attorney general. Public support for impeachment, which had sat in the 20s for most of the summer, skyrocketed. A plurality of Americans soon favored it.
Desperate for damage control, the Nixon White House launched what it called, with a straight face, "Operation Candor." On November 17, 1973, the president sought to reestablish his credibility in the fantasy-friendly confines of Disney World. In a televised Q&A session with 400 newspaper editors, he hoped to convince the nation of his honesty and integrity. He only made things worse.
Nixon grew increasingly angry and agitated at the podium when the Orlando press conference turned to questions about his finances. Reporters had been hounding him for weeks, asking how he could afford two separate private homes on his relatively meager presidential salary and whether he'd benefitted personally from administration dealings. There had even been rumors that the President of the United States was being bankrolled in some way by the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.
Grabbing the podium with both hands and bobbing nervously on his feet, Nixon tried to dispel the rumors and shore up his credibility:
Let me just say this, and I want to say this to the television audience: I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service—I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I could say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got.
At that, the president stepped back from the podium, crossed his arms defensively and gave a curt nod, signaling that his word would be good enough. It wasn't. To prove that he wasn't a crook – or at least not the particular kind of crook detailed in those allegations – Nixon reluctantly released his tax returns a week later. ...