Opinion

From Nixon to Trump, a history of taxing questions for presidents

Martin Schram is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a veteran Washington D.C. journalist.
Martin Schram is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a veteran Washington D.C. journalist. MCT photo

For decades, famous Republicans campaigned by decrying the way we allow welfare cheats, food stamp scammers and all sorts of tax dodgers and deadbeats to take advantage of our government programs funded by America’s hardworking taxpayers.

Indeed, Ronald Reagan campaigned for years by warning us about a “welfare queen.” She was never identified, probably just a trope; but many Americans were sure they knew her type; they unfairly figured she was probably working her scams in some tax-funded public housing project.

At a 1976 campaign rally, Reagan regaled us about how well she was living off our taxpayer dollars: “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Fast-forward to today: President Trump has called for reforming welfare, food stamps (now called “SNAP”), and other taxpayer-funded aid programs. “People are taking advantage of the system,” he said. And he hates when that happens.

Today, we’ll start by focusing on two classic case histories: One is a perp who was actually living in our public housing when he pulled his little scam. The other got away with gaming the system for years - and coincidentally wound up living in that same public housing project.

Maybe you know the place: It’s a very old, but still-serviceable, two-story white building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D.C.

Rewind to 1969: President Nixon discovered a way he could pay virtually no income taxes as president - by donating his pre-presidential papers to the government and claiming it as a tax-deduction.

But then he found the provision had just been cancelled and he missed the deadline. No problem: A notary donation deed was illegally backdated to April 21, 1969, so it would look legal.

But Nixon’s caper was caught; he paid the Internal Revenue Service a big fine and an aide took the rap and went to jail.

Then, in 1974, Nixon paid another price when questioned about it in a primetime press conference by Newsday’s then-young journalist (whom I coincidentally just saw in my bathroom mirror this morning):

“Mr. President…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 (pre-presidential) papers to the government and pay token taxes just for two 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?”

Of course Nixon didn’t pay his fair share. And of course he never said so that night. He just said he’d taken the deduction at the suggestion of the (conveniently) recently-deceased former President Lyndon Johnson.

No doubt every tax-paying American reading this column has paid more than their president paid a half century ago.

Fast-forward again: On Wednesday we learned we all also paid more federal income taxes than a mega-rich Donald Trump did during eight years in the 1980s and 1990s.

The New York Times reported that Trump paid no income taxes for those years because his businesses lost a whopping $1.7 billion in those years - more than virtually any other American lost.

So now we need to ask yet another president: “Do you think you paid your fair share?”

Apparently, Trump just gave us his answer. He tweeted that he took advantage of our cockamamie tax laws that allowed real estate tycoons to claim losses, and pay no taxes, while you and I paid, bigtime!

Trump’s tweet made no pretense of contending zero was his fair share (while he enjoyed his usual luxurious life in his mansions, penthouses and private jet). He played the game by the rules lawyers and lobbyists wrote, and Congress meekly passed.

As @realDonaldTrump tweeted:

“Real estate developers in the 1980’s & 1990’s, more than 30 years ago, were entitled to massive write offs and depreciation which would, if one was actively building, show losses and tax losses in almost all cases. Much was non monetary. Sometimes considered “tax shelter,”….you would get it by building, or even buying. You always wanted to show losses for tax purposes….almost all real estate developers did - and often re-negotiate with banks, it was sport.”

Not a crime. Just a sport.

Not fair. Just fake.

Not Congress in action. Just inaction.

And the bleat goes on.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Reach him by email at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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