The ornate East Room of the White House was bathed in TV klieg lights and all three of the nation’s TV networks were beaming the president’s prime-time news conference live, coast to coast.
As I rose from my front row seat, as Newsday’s young Washington bureau chief, I realized I was about to confront the president with a stunning discovery I had found that afternoon that would sound like a made-for-TV movie coincidence. Except it would put the president’s latest scandal into a context that hard-working, tax-paying Americans would find instantly infuriating.
It was Feb. 25, 1974. While Washington was awash with Watergate, this wasn’t about that. This was about a new, non-Watergate scandal: President Richard Nixon had illegally claimed a tax deduction he didn’t deserve — and paid virtually no federal income taxes during his first two years as president. Yep, it was the same sort of presidential income tax-avoidance scandal that’s big news again this week, 46 years later — but this time on a massively larger scale because Donald Trump is sitting in the Oval Office where Nixon once sat.
When The New York Times reported on Sunday that Donald Trump paid only token income taxes as president, I was struck by the similarities of their tax avoidance dodges. Trump reportedly paid a mere $750 in taxes in 2016, the year he became president. Nixon paid just $792.81 in 1970 and $878.03 in 1971. Nixon claimed a tax deduction for donating his pre-presidential papers to the government archives. But because the deduction had expired before he could make his claim, Nixon’s lawyer backdated the deed to make it seem legal.
On that night 46 years ago, as Nixon glared at me from his podium a few feet away, I coupled his deduction with an official action he undertook on that same date:
"Mr. President, thank you very much. To follow on an earlier question about taxes, April 21, 1969, was a significant day for you in taxes and for the country, too. That is the notary date on the deed that allowed you to give your papers to the government and pay just token taxes for years. On that same date, you had a tax reform message in which you said, and I quote: ’Special preferences in the law permit far too many Americans to pay less than their fair share of taxes. Too many others bear too much of the tax burden.’
"Now, Mr. President, do you think you paid your fair share of taxes?
Nixon responded by attempting to surround himself with distinguished Democrats, especially liberal ones, replying:
"Well, I would point out that those who made deductions such as I made in this particular instance included (Harvard economist) John Kenneth Galbraith, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist) Jerome Wiesner, Vice President Humphrey, President Johnson, a number of others. I did not write that law. When it was brought to my attention, rather vigorously by President Johnson (who was by then deceased) when I saw him shortly after my election, he thought that it would be wise for me to give my papers to the government and take the proper deduction. I did that. Under the circumstances, as you know now, that deduction is no longer allowed. As far as I am concerned, I think that was probably a proper decision."
That night, Nixon’s press office launched its damage control: After all, federal officials aren’t allowed to divulge info from any private taxpayer’s documents. Professor Wiesner was the first to deny he took that deduction; the White House rushed to apologize. Nixon subsequently paid the IRS for all back taxes owed.
When modern-era presidents release their taxes, sometimes critics attack them for not paying enough. In 2012, President Barack Obama was attacked by a critic from the world of entertainment and business for only paying $162,074 in federal income taxes (on gross income of $789,674). The critic, who ignored Obama’s donations of $172,130 to charity, nastily tweeted:
"@BarackObama who wants to raise all our taxes, only pays 20.5% on $790k salary. ...Do as I say not as I do." — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 13, 2012."
Now, thanks to The New York Times, we can put Trump’s tweet into context: In 2011, the year Trump said Obama’s $162,000 in taxes wasn’t enough, Trump reportedly paid zero in taxes. By 2014, Trump had reportedly paid zero in taxes four years in a row.
Donald Trump has been living the life of a peacocking billionaire while sponging off of us all. He has been protected by a security blanket of government services, paid for by Americans including millions of hard-working, tax-paying, trusting Trump supporters who are apparently giving him a free ride.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.