Work That Hasn’t Yet Entered Publication: A Historical Perspective on Presidential Tax Returns



In the realm of presidential norms, the public disclosure of tax returns held sway until the era of Donald Trump. As we delve into the history of presidents and their federal income tax filings, we witness the evolution of this practice and the significance it holds. This article examines how the tradition of sharing tax information with the public began, its continuity through the years, and the departure from this norm during Trump’s presidency.

A Tradition of Transparency: From Nixon to Obama

Since the early 1900s, when the modern income tax was established with the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, presidents of the United States maintained a close-guarded approach to their tax returns. It was during Richard Nixon’s administration that this secrecy was challenged due to press leaks revealing questionable deductions the president had taken to minimize his tax liability. These leaks prompted Nixon to release his tax returns for each year between 1969 and 1972, quelling public concerns about his tax practices.

Following Nixon’s lead, every president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama voluntarily shared their tax returns during their time in office. Although not legally obligated to disclose this information, presidents saw it as an opportunity to foster trust with the American electorate. The amounts paid in federal income taxes varied significantly among presidents, with Bill Clinton paying $62,670 in his first year and Obama contributing the largest sum of $1,792,414 in 2009. The disclosure of tax returns provided a glimpse into their financial situations and sources of income during their presidencies.

Trump’s Tax Saga: A Break from Tradition

The tradition of voluntary disclosure came to a halt during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016. Despite calls for transparency due to his extensive business dealings and claims of entrepreneurial prowess, Trump refused to release his tax returns, citing an ongoing audit as the reason. However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has no policy prohibiting the public release of tax returns during an audit. The absence of Trump’s tax returns left the public in the dark about his tax history, generating speculation and debate about his wealth and tax payments.

The New York Times eventually obtained more than two decades’ worth of Trump’s tax returns, revealing a different financial picture from what his disclosure documents portrayed. The obtained returns highlighted years of minimal tax payments, substantial debt, and contentious deductions, including sizable “consulting fees” paid to his daughter Ivanka and significant hairstyling expenses. While Trump dismissed these revelations as “fake news,” he never refuted the specific findings reported by The New York Times.

Biden’s Continuation of Public Disclosure

In contrast to his predecessor, President Joe Biden has continued the tradition of public disclosure, releasing his tax returns through the 2021 tax year. In 2021, he and his wife Jill paid $148,687 in federal income tax on an adjusted gross income of $610,702. President Biden’s tax filings demonstrate his commitment to transparency and align with the practice of his predecessors.


Sharing tax returns with the public has long served as a means for presidential candidates to address concerns about conflicts of interest and showcase their adherence to tax regulations. Although not legally mandated, this practice fosters transparency and trust. The deviation from this norm during Trump’s presidency raised questions about his financial situation and tax contributions. The recent revelations brought to light by The New York Times shed further light on the complexities of Trump’s tax history. Moving forward, the public’s access to tax information remains essential in understanding the financial dynamics of presidential leaders.

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