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Kaine Muffs Trump-Nixon Comparison

Tim Kaine says Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns fails to clear even the low ethical bar set by Richard Nixon as a candidate. But Kaine gets some history wrong.

Nixon never publicly released his tax returns as a presidential candidate, though he did amid a swirling tax controversy during his presidency.

Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, has made comparisons with Nixon a regular feature of his stump speeches. Nixon has an interesting history regarding tax returns, but Kaine is botching the facts some.

Here’s what Kaine said in a speech in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 30.

Kaine in Lancaster, Aug. 30: Candidates for 40 years, both parties, this is not a partisan statement, have released their tax returns. Richard Nixon released his tax returns. If you can’t come up to the ethical standard of Richard Nixon, you should not be within 10 time zones of being commander in chief.

Kaine made a similar claim the same day at a rally in Erie, noting that Nixon was even under an IRS audit when he released his tax returns, undercutting Trump’s stated reason for refusing to release his own.

Kaine in Erie, Aug. 30: Richard Nixon released his tax returns when he was under audit. It’s hard to get kind of — not get over a low hurdle of the Nixon standard for ethics. But Donald Trump can’t even get over the Nixon standard for ethics.

For questions related to tax returns, we turn first to Tax Analysts’ Tax History Project, which has compiled an online archive of tax returns publicly released by presidential candidates. It shows tax returns for Nixon from 1969 to 1972, but Nixon didn’t release those when he was a candidate. Rather, he released them near the end of his presidency in 1973 amid speculation about tax improprieties.

Nixon’s tax woes are a fascinating chapter in presidential history that has been largely overshadowed by the unrelated Watergate scandal, which ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation.

But in 1973 and early 1974, Nixon’s tax scandal was a big deal. Although the IRS had signed off on an audit of Nixon’s returns, public interest was sparked by an IRS leak that called into question Nixon’s use of a charitable deduction — to the tune of $500,000 — for vice presidential papers he deeded to the National Archives.

In an attempt to clear the air, Nixon asked the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation to review his tax returns. The IRS also decided to reopen its audit. As a result of their joint investigation, the taxation committee and IRS determined that Nixon had underpaid on his taxes, and owed $476,431 in back taxes and interest. That was about half of Nixon’s net worth at the time, Joseph J. Thorndike, a historian at Tax Analysts, told us in a phone interview.

At the time, Democrat Wilbur Mills, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and vice chairman of the House-Senate committee investigating Nixon’s tax returns, predicted the tax scandal would lead to Nixon’s resignation. It didn’t. Watergate did.

Nonetheless, those are the circumstances surrounding Nixon’s release of tax returns.

As a candidate, Nixon never did publicly release his tax returns, although there is one asterisk. In the 1968 Republican primary, Nixon squared off against Michigan Gov. George Romney, and Romney took the unprecedented step of releasing a dozen years of his tax returns to Look magazine, according to an article in Bloomberg View by Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia. In response, Nixon allowed a Look writer to inspect photocopies of three years worth of tax returns, Mihm wrote. But they were never publicly released.

“The whole point about publicly releasing them is the public part,” Thorndike said. “You don’t get the crowd-sourcing. Either you are going to release them publicly or not.”

A reporter quickly reviewing tax returns without the ability to take notes is not the same as the public — including tax experts — being able to carefully pick over them, he said.

There is another interesting footnote to Nixon’s role in the history of presidential disclosure of tax returns. While running as a vice presidential candidate in 1952 as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, Nixon got in hot water over questions about some campaign finance issues. Nixon delivered his famous “Checkers” speech — named after his dog, who was featured in the address — in which he laid out his personal finances, and challenged his Democratic opponents to do the same.

Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson upped the ante by releasing 10 years worth of tax returns. Stevenson then called on Nixon to do the same. Nixon refused, but Eisenhower released a summary of his tax returns.

So in a way, Thorndike said, Nixon helped spur the trend toward candidates publicly releasing tax returns. The later tax scandal in 1973-74 cemented the precedent. Since then, Thorndike said, candidates have provided returns to show, “I’m not Nixon.”

So Kaine is wrong that Nixon released returns as a candidate. He’s also technically wrong when he says, “Candidates for 40 years, both parties, this is not a partisan statement, have released their tax returns.” In 1976, Jimmy Carter released his. But his opponent, Republican Gerald Ford, refused, and instead only provided a summary of his return. Every presidential nominee from both parties has released some tax returns since then.

Kaine’s history is a bit off, Thorndike said, but his broader point about the longtime precedent for releasing tax returns is valid.