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Why do presidents release their tax returns? How did it all get started?

From President Trump to President Nixon, the history of presidential tax returns spans nearly 50 years.

MINNESOTA, USA — United States presidents have been releasing their tax returns to the public since the 1970’s, but how did this unique social norm get started?

University of Minnesota Political Science Professor Larry Jacobs says it’s an interesting story, and it all started with Richard Nixon in 1973.

"It was part of an effort to show transparency, that voters could trust the president at a time when there was rising alienation and a lack of confidence in government,” Jacobs says.

But history shows Nixon didn’t release his records because he thought it was the right thing to do.

According to the Tax History Project, an online database that tracks the financial records of past presidents, Nixon made his tax records public after someone at the IRS already leaked some of his records.

According to these records, Nixon paid around $800 in taxes in both 1970 and 1971, despite earning around $200,000 a year.

These numbers were upsetting to many Americans, and journalists, who were already curious about Nixon’s financial records and had been inquiring about them for several months.

So, Nixon decided to calm the storm by releasing his tax returns from 1969 to 1972.

And it was at this unique moment that an American tradition was born.

Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford kept the tradition going when he became president.

Records show Ford didn’t release his tax returns outright, but instead released summaries of his annual tax returns.

After that, President Jimmy Carter took things a step further when he decided to release his tax return in its entirety when he took over as president.

Carter kicked off a trend that carried on for six presidents, three democrats and three republicans, that kept a streak going for over 40 years.

Some presidential candidates even decided to take the norm a step further by releasing every tax record they had.

During his 2016 presidential run Jeb Bush announced he was going to release nearly 30 years’ worth of tax returns in an ultimate display of public transparency.

It was around that time that our current president, Donald Trump, also promised to release his own records.

“Donald Trump initially said he would release his tax returns and then hinted he would several times before pulling out of that promise,” Jacobs says.

And here we are, a few years later, and President Trump finds himself in a difficult situation.

On the final day of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two important decisions regarding the president’s tax returns.

In a 7-2 ruling, including his own appointees to the court, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the president’s claims that his office gave him total immunity to legal scrutiny.

In the 1st case, the court decided President Trump must turn over his tax and financial documents to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

The office is looking into the president’s records over concerns that he may have paid hush money to two women during his campaign.

In the 2nd case, brought on by members of the United States Congress, the Supreme Court justices decided a lower court should decide whether house investigators should be allowed to get access to the president’s records.

“The justices basically didn’t want their ruling to affect the election in November, but essentially the court is saying with this decision that no one, including the President of the United States, is above the law,” Jacobs says.


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