Tim Kaine has been goading Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to release his tax returns to the public, just as the Democratic ticket did recently.
Kaine, a U.S. senator from Virginia and the Democratic vice presidential nominee, said Trump’s refusal to release his forms is a break from past GOP nominees, including one who Kaine said was not known for his ethics.
"Even Richard Nixon released his tax returns to the public when he was running for president because he said, as has every major party nominee of both parties since, the American public have a right to see my tax returns," Kaine told a crowd during a Manchester, N.H., rally on Aug. 13.
We weren’t aware that Nixon released his tax returns while he was on the campaign trail. So we asked the Hillary Clinton campaign where Kaine got the information for that statement.
Sarah Peck, the Virginia director of communications for the Clinton campaign, pointed us to news articles and other sources about Nixon’s tax disclosures.
We also looked at the website for the Presidential Tax History Project, which is run by Tax Analysts, a Falls Church-based nonprofit that specializes in tax issues. That group has compiled tax returns online for past presidents and major-party presidential nominees.
On the group’s website, you’ll find copies of Nixon’s tax returns from 1969 through 1972.
But there’s a catch. Those returns were not released while Nixon was running for president. They were released in December 1973, a year after he was re-elected.
At the time, the 37th president was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and questions were being raised about whether something also was amiss with his tax filings.
Reports had surfaced that Nixon had been paying a small amount of federal tax for several years, a function of having secured a large deduction for donating his vice presidential papers to the National Archives, said Joseph J. Thorndike, a historian at Tax Analysts.
To quell lingering concerns, Nixon released tax returns to the public as well as to the Joint Committee on Taxation despite the fact that the president was under an IRS audit at the time, Thorndike told us.
So Nixon did indeed release his full tax returns as president. Did he ever do that while he was running for that office? Nixon ran for president three times, so let’s go back a bit further in history.
Peck pointed us to a 1984 story in The New York Times, which noted that in his successful 1968 campaign for the presidency, Nixon released a brief summary of his financial affairs.
In the 1968 nominating contest, Nixon faced a field of GOP candidates that included Michigan Gov. George Romney.
Romney, whose son Mitt was the GOP presidential nominee in 2012, released a dozen years of his tax returns to Look magazine, according to a Bloomberg column written by Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia.
"Look (magazine) then went to Nixon, who proved distinctly less forthcoming. He permitted a writer to inspect photocopies of his returns, but only three years’ worth," Mihm wrote.
The history professor added that the issue didn’t come up during the general election campaign, because Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey also refused to release his tax returns.
Mihm told us that Look magazine merely summarized selected information from Nixon’s returns, rather than publishing the documents themselves.
"I suppose one could argue that Nixon gave a journalist access to his returns, but that’s not the same thing as releasing them," Mihm wrote in an email.
Thorndike also told us that Nixon’s limited disclosure in that instance wouldn’t really count as the candidate releasing his tax returns to the public. A reporter was able to look at them but wasn’t allowed to keep a copy of them, Thorndike noted.
"In my book, that would not count as releasing your tax returns, because the whole crowd source thing is a big part of it," Thorndike said.
We couldn’t find any record of Nixon releasing tax returns during his two other runs for the presidency - in 1960, against John F. Kennedy, or in his 1972 re-election bid against George McGovern.
Thorndike said that, to his knowledge, Nixon didn’t release his returns during those campaigns. Mihm also told us he’s not aware of Nixon releasing his tax returns during any of his presidential campaigns.
Still, Thorndike said Nixon’s presidential tax return disclosure, while he was president in 1973, did start a tradition where presidents and candidates seeking the highest office release their returns to the public.
Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, did not release his tax returns publicly but instead provided a summary of his taxes. But Jimmy Carter did publicly release his tax returns while running against Ford in 1976. In fact, every major-party nominee since Carter has released them to the public, Thorndike said.
Kaine said, "Even Richard Nixon released his tax returns to the public when he was running for president ..."
Nixon never released his tax returns during a presidential campaign.
But there is a kernel of truth in Kaine’s statement. Nixon released his full returns when he already was president, to quell controversy over his taxes.
Also while running in 1968, he allowed a reporter to examine his returns, but beyond that limited circumstance, there’s no record that Nixon opened his tax forms to the general public.
While Kaine’s statement has an element of truth, it ignores facts that would create a different impression. We rate his statement Mostly False.