IRS audits are the government's way to ensure taxpayers aren't cheating. But for wealthy individuals who have multiple business interests and income earned from a variety of sources, audits are pretty routine. For someone as wealthy as Trump claims to be, his chances are about one in 50. So his audit doesn't necessarily mean he's done anything wrong. But his secrecy does raise red flags. Richard Nixon -- a president not known for his openness -- released his returns while still under audit in 1973. And Mitt Romney eventually released his, though he waited until the fall of 2012, which probably brought more scrutiny and criticism than if he'd done it earlier. In campaigns, the general rule is: release bad news early and hope it will be forgotten by Election Day.
If Trump does owe more in taxes than he's paid over the last several years, closing the audit would mean the government might not be able to automatically force payment of those taxes. So the U.S. Treasury would be a few million dollars poorer. But isn't transparency worth that cost? Of course, closing the audit would not allow the IRS itself to reveal the returns -- that's a felony -- but it would force Trump's hand. He's said many things about his returns, but perhaps Trump can be held to this tweet reprinted in Politico this week: "In interview I told @AP that my taxes are under routine audit and I would release my tax returns when audit is complete, not after election!"
Closing the audit would not prevent the IRS from prosecuting Trump for tax fraud later if he intentionally misrepresented information on his return. While there is a three-year limit on collecting back taxes, there is no statute of limitations on fraudulent returns. So the risk in releasing Trump from audit is minor compared to the risk of giving him an excuse to avoid honoring his pledge.
Many pundits and Trump critics have speculated about why Trump won't release his returns. Some think he's not nearly as rich as he claims -- I fall into this category -- and believe Trump pays almost nothing in taxes. There's good reason to assume this speculation is correct. Trump's returns from the late 1970s, which he provided for the New Jersey gambling commission in order to open his casino, showed he paid $0 in taxes for the previous two years at a time when he claimed to the New York Times he was worth $200 million.
A look at Trump's return would doubtless find that the billionaire is stingy. According to an investigation by the Washington Post, which examined gifts to 188 charities Trump has either claimed he's given to or whose events he attended, he's given almost nothing. The Post found that contrary to the Trump's boasts about the millions he gives, he's made only a single, verifiable donation between 2008 and May 2016 -- less than $10,000 to the Police Athletic League of New York City. Nor has Trump given anything to his own charitable foundation since 2008.
But the biggest worry is that Trump may be in hock to Russian banks, which would show up in his returns. Again, there is ample fuel for such speculation. Trump's reputation with American banks isn't great; he's got a history of trying to stiff them. His lender of choice is Deustche Bank, but he's had a rough relationship even with them involving suits and countersuits when Trump refused to pay back what he owed. According to Trump's financial disclosures filed with the Federal Elections Commission, he owes at least $335 million on more than a dozen large bank loans. But the sum may be much higher since the disclosure only lists rough categories, the largest of which is $50 million or more per loan.
The public has a right to know Donald Trump's complicated financial dealings before voters go to the polls. If it takes suspending his audit to force Trump to come clean, the IRS should do it today. And if Trump won't honor his pledge, voters should know he's hiding something.