The April 14, 1974, cover of TIME
Cover Credit: DIRCK HALSTEAD
By Lily Rothman
March 15, 2017

In the introduction to a headline-making episode Tuesday of her MSNBC show in which she revealed the contents of one of Donald Trump’s old tax returns, Rachel Maddow had cause to remind audiences of a particular presidential one-liner from American history: the moment in November of 1973 when President Richard Nixon told the American people, “I am not a crook.”

Though Nixon was already embroiled in the Watergate scandal that would lead to his downfall and the line was widely interpreted as a reflection of that situation — the break-in that started everything took place in 1972, and Nixon had been questioned about that too — the line came in response to something else. At an editors’ conference, a journalist named Joseph Ungaro asked whether the President’s taxes had been accurately reported. “The people have to know whether or not their President is a crook,” Nixon responded. “Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I’ve got.”

The question of Nixon’s taxes was the subject of a TIME cover story early the following year — a cover that Maddow displayed to viewers on Tuesday night. As Maddow noted to viewers, the questioning of Nixon’s tax situation was fruitful for investigators, a situation that TIME explained:

Nixon, as the story noted, enjoyed the “dubious distinction” of being the first sitting President ever to be audited by the Congressional Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation. The investigation generally concluded that, though Nixon had not properly paid his taxes, his owing money did not mean he had purposefully committed fraud. Nevertheless, amid the larger atmosphere of scandal, Nixon’s assertion that he was not a crook would go down as a one of the most infamous statements of presidential history.

As TIME put it in that cover story, “the White House doubtless wishes that somehow the books could be snapped shut as decisively and relatively cleanly on Watergate as they were last week on the President’s tax problems. Of course, they cannot be.”

Read the full story here in the TIME Vault: Nixon’s Tax Scandal

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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