In 1973 President Richard Nixon told reporters that “people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.” He would soon release his tax returns in a bid to ease the nation’s fears — unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
Still, Nixon’s comment marked the start of a voluntary tax disclosure tradition. For nearly half a century afterward, every president, beginning with Jimmy Carter in 1977, and every major party nominee, beginning with Ronald Reagan and Carter in 1980, would make their tax returns public.
That long, bipartisan tradition is almost certainly dead now — or if not completely dead, then at least mostly dead.
Unless, that is, Nikki Haley decides to save it.
How the Tradition Died
Voluntary tax disclosure died at the hands of former President Trump. But Democrats played a role, too. Trump killed off the “tax disclosure” part when he kept his returns private, first as a candidate and later as a sitting president. But Democrats destroyed the “voluntary” element of this tradition when they released Trump’s returns without his consent last December.
Democrats will probably keep disclosing their returns, at least for the time being. In 2020 the party’s presidential candidates were generally forthcoming with their returns. And as president, Joe Biden has reestablished the norm of White House tax disclosure.
But Republicans seem unlikely to revive the disclosure tradition, either now or in the future. They seem untroubled by Democratic complaints about lack of transparency; having defended Trump against that charge for years, they know their talking points inside out.
More important, the GOP outrage surrounding forced disclosure of Trump’s returns has poisoned the well against tax disclosure going forward. Maybe I’m wrong, but I would be shocked if any prominent Republican is willing to champion voluntary disclosure now that Democrats have pioneered the practice of involuntary disclosure.
In this environment, I suspect that voluntary tax disclosure will be coded as “weak” by many Republican voters and virtually all Republican politicians — a capitulation to Democratic norms and a betrayal of the party’s most prominent leader.
Nikki Haley to the Rescue?
There might still be a chance for some brave Republican to rescue the tradition of voluntary disclosure. It’s not clear that Nikki Haley will be that courageous figure. It could certainly be any of the other Republicans who find the gumption to challenge Trump for the nomination (if any actually emerge).
But here are four reasons to vest some hope in Haley.
First, Haley chose to announce her 2024 candidacy at a moment when most GOP politicians are too frightened of Trump to take the plunge. There’s genuine courage in that decision.
Second, Haley released her tax returns while serving as South Carolina governor. It was not always a pleasant experience for her; opponents tried to make an issue of her filing extensions, for instance, as well as late filings that blew past those extensions. And during her initial bid for the governor’s office, she was dogged by apparent discrepancies between her publicly released tax returns and other financial documents uncovered by reporters through Freedom of Information Act requests. But still, she has a record of personal tax return disclosure.
Third, Haley has a record of challenging Trump on his failure to disclose tax returns in 2016. During the primaries, while endorsing Marco Rubio, Haley criticized Trump for keeping his returns secret. (To be fair, however, she also defended Mitt Romney from attacks about his reluctance to release returns in 2012; Trump’s advisers were quick to point out this discrepancy.)
Fourth, Haley has endorsed the idea of mandatory return disclosure as recently as 2021, if somewhat obliquely. The issue arose in a discussion of mental competency exams for older candidates. “We seriously need to have a conversation that if you’re going to have anyone above a certain age in a position of power, whether it’s the House, whether it’s the Senate, whether it’s vice president, whether it’s president, you should have some sort of cognitive test,” she suggested during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2021.
Haley then tried to normalize her suggestion by linking it to the tradition of tax return disclosure. “Just like you have to show your tax returns,” she continued, “you should have some sort of health screening so that people have faith in what you’re doing.”
Observers pounced on Haley’s implicit embrace of the tax disclosure tradition — and her implied criticism of Trump. “What I’m hearing is: Nikki Haley calls on Donald Trump to release his tax returns and prove mental competency ahead of 2024,” tweeted Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark.
None of the four reasons listed above is dispositive; nothing guarantees that Haley will take a stand for tax disclosure. But the path to the GOP nomination in 2024 will go through, or at least around, the most important non-tax-discloser in modern U.S. history.
It seems reasonable that Haley might choose to make tax disclosure a point of contrast with Trump. She could do that by releasing her own taxes. On or about tax day, April 18, would be my suggestion.
This is no year for an extension, Governor Haley.