NEW YORK -- Donald Trump claims “there’s nothing to learn” from his tax returns. He just refuses to prove it.
The real estate developer promised for over a year to release them, something every presidential nominee for the past four decades has done voluntarily. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, has disclosed hers stretching back decades.
But after running through a series of excuses, Trump signaled Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press that he didn’t expect to release his returns before November's election. The presumptive Republican nominee had changed his story by Wednesday, tweeting that he intends to do so by the time voters head to the polls. He provided no specific date.
Trump’s unwillingness so far to release the returns presents a serious challenge to the news media, which has already struggled to vet a candidate prone to abrupt policy changes, persistent falsehoods and disregard for the press. Trump has managed to avoid sustained scrutiny of his business record -- his stated justification for his candidacy -- and may now sidestep a quadrennial function of the political press by refusing to release his returns. He could dodge some potentially thorny questions about his business ties and charitable giving in the process.
Journalists were skeptical of Trump's entering the presidential race because they assumed he’d never submit to serious scrutiny of his wealth. He once sued a reporter who dug too deeply into his public boasts. For 15 months, he's punted on the tax return question in interviews and now, he appears to be trying to run out the clock.
Four years ago, Trump urged Mitt Romney to more speedily release his returns and indicated he would do so when flirting with a presidential run of his own. In February 2015, Trump told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he had "no objection" to releasing his returns.
Months later, as Trump prepared to officially jump into the race, sources around the real estate developer signaled to the press that he’d be transparent about his personal wealth and business dealings.
On June 15, The Washington Post reported that Trump would release a two-page summary of assets along with the next morning’s campaign rollout at Trump Tower indicating that the real estate mogul had assets of about $9 billion. (The campaign pegged his net worth in excess of $10 billion the following month when filing an FEC financial disclosure).
The Post’s story noted that Trump “has not ruled out [releasing his tax returns] at some point in the coming months,” citing people familiar with his plans. CNN reported the next day that Trump planned to release the tax returns before the first Republican debate on Aug. 6.
A few days before Aug. 6, Trump told CBS “Face The Nation” host John Dickerson that he had “no major problem” disclosing the returns. However, Trump suggested he “may tie them to release of Hillary’s emails,” a reference to emails from Clinton’s personal account while Secretary of State.
When Trump unveiled his tax plan in September, he said he planned to release his tax returns in the “not-too-distant future.” In early October, Trump told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that he was “thinking about” releasing, but again tried pegging his disclosures to the release of Clinton’s emails. (That excuse later fell apart when the State Department began releasing thousands of pages of her emails).
Trump teased the press on Oct. 15 by tweeting a photo of himself alongside a huge stack of papers, with the phrase "Signing my tax return..."
But in the waning months of 2015, journalists still hadn't gotten a look inside that stack. Trump again wouldn’t commit to a date in late January on “Meet the Press,” just days before the Iowa caucuses. “I have very big returns, as you know, and I have everything all approved and very beautiful and we'll be working on that over the next period of time,” he said.
In late February, nearly a year after promising Hewitt he’d release the tax returns, he told the radio host that he’d do so "at some point, probably."
But two days later, Trump said at a CNN debate that he couldn’t release the tax returns because he’s been audited every year for the last 12 years. He claimed after the debate that the IRS had targeted him for being a "strong Christian."
That explanation left tax experts "scratching their heads," according to the AP, which noted that Trump and his campaign dodged follow-up questions on this new rationale. There's no legal reason that Trump can't release his tax returns, even if under audit.
“So you can offer evidence that you are being audited or have been audited like you say?” CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Trump at a March 29 town hall.
“A hundred percent," Trump said. "I'll give you a letter from the biggest firm in Washington that does my work for me.” (Two days later, Trump’s lawyers’ released a letter dated March 7 that claimed he's been under “continuous” IRS examination since 2002.)
On Friday, campaign surrogate Ben Carson said he expected Trump to release them before the election. "If he says he's going to release them, he's going to release them,” Carson said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “It'll be at an appropriate time.”
Trump, however, refused to give a firm date on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” claiming again that he’d have to wait until after an audit is completed.
On Tuesday, Trump suggested to the AP that voters aren't interested in the matter, a point that pro-Trump pundits repeated on the airwaves Wednesday morning. That doesn’t mean the press shouldn’t be.
UPDATE: 10:38 p.m. -- Trump attempted to walk back his interview with AP, telling Fox News host Greta van Susteren that he hopes to release his tax returns before the election, but that the IRS audit is preventing him from doing so.
"You said you don't intend to release your tax returns," van Susteren said.
"I didn't say that," Trump responded. "I am being audited. ... The answer is hopefully before the election. I will release, and I would like to release."
According to the IRS, Trump's excuse is invalid. In February, the agency clarified that "nothing prevents individuals from sharing their own tax information."