Why We Ask to See Candidates’ Tax Returns

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Boston — Lost in the debate over Donald J. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns is the story of where the custom of disclosure comes from — and why it can be so valuable as a measure of character. It’s a tale of presidential tax shenanigans, political scandal and one of the most famous quotations in American history: Richard M. Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

The story begins in July 1969, when Congress eliminated a provision of the tax code that had allowed a sitting or former president to donate his papers to a public or nonprofit archive in exchange for a very large tax deduction. Congress’s rationale was that a president’s papers already belonged to the public.

In his taxes for 1969, President Nixon indicated that four months before Congress acted, he had donated more than 1,000 boxes of documents to the National Archives. He claimed a deduction of more than $500,000.

The write-off didn’t become public until 1973, when it was mentioned in passing during a lawsuit related to the Watergate break-in. Although the deed formally giving the papers to the National Archives was dated March 27, 1969, it turned out not to have been signed until April 1970, nine months after presidential document donations lost nearly all their tax benefits. (A thorough account of Nixon’s tax dodge is contained in a paper written for the United States Capitol Historical Society by the Northwestern University law professor Joseph J. Thorndike.)

Had Nixon really beaten the deadline? And had he overstated the papers’ value to generate a personal windfall?

Reporters swarmed and advocates for fair taxation demanded an audit. But Nixon refused to release his taxes and opposed an audit. The I.R.S. bowed to his wishes.

There the story stalled until Oct. 3, 1973, when Jack White, a 31-year-old suburban reporter for The Providence Journal-Bulletin, broke the biggest story of his career. While big-time reporters prowled Washington for details about President Nixon’s taxes, White covered small-town politics and high-society events as manager of his paper’s bureau in Newport, R.I. But White, rumpled and easygoing, had a knack for earning the trust of sources. One source provided him with evidence that Nixon had paid taxes of only $792.81 in 1970 and $878.03 in 1971, despite having income exceeding $400,000.

By donating his papers with a backdated deed, Nixon had slashed his tax bill drastically. He paid the equivalent of a family of three earning about $8,000 in 1970 dollars.

After White’s article was published, demands rose for full disclosure. The next month, White’s colleague at the Providence paper, Joseph Ungaro, asked Nixon about his taxes during his appearance at a newspaper editors’ conference in Florida. Nixon replied: “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.”

No single comment would stick more firmly to Nixon. It had never before been necessary for a president to distinguish himself from ordinary tax cheats. Yet still he wouldn’t release his taxes.

In the meantime, the I.R.S. reversed itself and decided to audit Nixon’s returns for the previous few years. While the audit was underway, Nixon buckled to public pressure in December 1973 and released five years of tax documents. He also asked a congressional committee to review, among other things, his gift of the papers.

The aftermath was sweeter for White than for Nixon. In May 1974, White won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. He died in 2005 without revealing his source. (As the story unfolded, I.R.S investigators said they had solved the mystery of the leak by tracing the president’s tax records to a photocopy machine in the agency’s national computer center in Martinsburg, W.Va. One unidentified I.R.S. employee quit to avoid being fired.)

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