A Brief History of the Taxpayer in ChiefRoundup
tags: income taxes, presidential history, tax evasion, Donald Trump
Margaret O’Mara is a contributing opinion writer and a history professor at the University of Washington. @margaretomara
This week’s investigation by The Times into President Trump’s long-hidden tax returns uncovered staggering business losses and such vigorous exploitation of loopholes that the president paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. When asked during Tuesday’s presidential debate about the revelations, Mr. Trump was unrepentant. “It was the tax laws,” he declared. His tax avoidance was “like every other private person, unless they’re stupid.”
Mr. Trump is no longer a private person, however, and he now joins his immediate predecessors in the intensely personal, frequently embarrassing presidential ritual of having his financial information laid out for all to see. But the importance of presidential returns extends beyond mere voyeurism. Learning what presidents pay (or don’t pay) in taxes shapes how the American public sees the presidency, the government and the fairness of the federal tax system itself.
For a long time, Americans didn’t see presidential tax returns. The first president to file them at all was Abraham Lincoln, after Congress temporarily instituted federal income taxes to help pay for the Civil War. No public proclamation accompanied Lincoln’s payments — at just under $1,300 he paid more in 1864 than Trump did 152 years later, no inflation adjustment necessary — and he filed voluntarily, as it wasn’t clear that taxation of presidential salaries was constitutional. Five years after Lincoln’s death, the courts ruled that it wasn’t. The U.S. Treasury returned Lincoln’s taxes to his estate.
The federal income tax became permanent in 1913, but the salary exemption for presidents continued for decades, and they disclosed little about their finances to the public. Nor was there much pressure to do so. Faith in government leadership was relatively high, and individual tax records were considered to have little relevance to a person’s fitness to be president.
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