“Make sure you pay your taxes,” former President Richard Nixon told David Frost in a television interview in 1977. “Otherwise, you can get in a lot of trouble.”
If Nixon were advising presidential candidates today, he might add: “And release your tax returns.”
Since President Trump took office, dozens of states, including Virginia, have considered — and rejected — requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on state ballots.
But California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, Tuesday signed the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, which passed on party line votes in the legislature.
To appear on the Democratic or Republican primary ballot, presidential and gubernatorial candidates now must release five years of tax returns, which will be posted online.
“These are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence,” Newsom said in a signing statement.
See you in court, replied the Trump campaign, which contends the new law is unconstitutional.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a very similar bill in 2017, warning of a slippery slope. Next time, it could be a red state demanding a birth certificate or health records, Brown warned.
If the law withstands judicial scrutiny, Trump must release his returns by November for the March 3 primary. The law does not affect the general election in November 2020.
Trump says voters elected him even though he refused to release his returns. He has a point. If voters cared, they could have flocked to rival Jeb Bush, who set a record by releasing 33 years of tax returns in 2016.
The Constitution lists only three qualifications for president: at least 35 years old, a citizen born in the United States and a resident in the United States for at least 14 years. So how did we get here?
The Constitution also gives states authority to decide how their electors are chosen. Each state writes its own laws setting the rules for candidates to appear on state ballots, such as petitions with signatures of a certain number of registered voters.
Federal courts have struck down several state laws involving congressional elections, including term limits. The California law raises questions about what restrictions states can place on presidential candidates.
We see the tax returns of presidential candidates and presidents because of a tradition that began after a scandal involving Nixon, according to Joseph J. Thorndike, director of the tax history project of Tax Analysts and author of several books on taxation, who appeared before a congressional panel in February.
Newspapers published stories based on leaks of details of Nixon’s tax returns, showing he had paid just $792 in federal income taxes in 1970 and $873 in 1971.
“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” Nixon said at a newspaper editors’ convention in November 1973. “Well, I am not a crook.”
Three weeks later, he voluntarily released four years of tax returns to reporters and asked the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’ nonpartisan tax experts, to examine them.
The committee’s audit identified an improper deduction for his gift of his vice presidential papers to the National Archives as well as incorrect capital gains treatment on the sales of his apartment in New York and part of his property in San Clemente, Calif. The president owed $476,451 in back taxes and interest.
To this day, no one knows if Nixon paid up. No check was publicly shown, Nixon resigned because of Watergate and President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon.
But since 1977, IRS policy has required an audit of every tax return filed by a sitting president and vice president, Thorndike said, and every president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama has released his tax returns during audits.
California’s new law is partisan and punitive fans, and it could backfire on Democrats. But Nixon was right: Americans do need to know whether their president is a crook. Like his predecessors, Trump should have released his tax returns, and he should do so now.
Mercer writes from Washington. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. ©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.