Trump says he ‘can’t’ release his tax returns. The IRS doesn’t see why not.

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston.
Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. AP

Donald Trump says he would like to release his tax returns to the public, but just can’t.

“I’m being audited now for two or three years, so I can’t do it until the audit is finished, obviously. And I think people would understand that,” the Republican front-runner said at Thursday night’s Republican debate in Houston.

The Internal Revenue Service and tax experts, though, say he can.

“Nothing prevents individuals from sharing their own tax information,” IRS spokesman Anthony Burke said in an e-mail.

Audits aren’t out of the norm for someone with Trump’s wealth, legal experts say, and there’s nothing to stop Trump from making his tax returns public.

“He’s not legally prevented from disclosing tax returns publicly. There’s no prohibition on that,” said Georgetown University tax law and policy professor John Brooks.

“He probably just doesn’t want to,” Brooks said.

The issue became a focal point this week when 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who himself initially refused to release his tax returns, suggested there is a “bombshell” in Trump’s taxes and called on the candidate to make them public.

Trump hit back at Romney, saying the criticism was irrelevant since “you don’t learn anything from a tax return.”

“The phrase ‘you don’t learn anything’ is false,” said Stanford tax law professor Joseph Bankman. “You learn a lot. You get great information about ‘true’ annual income, as most people would define the term. The tax return is the single most relevant document you could have.”

Romney presented several theories: Maybe Trump has not donated to veterans groups as he says he has. Maybe Trump hasn’t paid the kind of taxes that voters would expect him to, given his wealth. Or maybe he is just not as wealthy as he claims to be.

While Trump has openly admitted that, like most taxpayers, he tries to pay as little as possible, the latter point has been a sore spot. Trump unsuccessfully sued Timothy O’Brien, the author of a 2005 book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald,” for writing that his worth was between $150 million and $250 million. Trump claimed that he was worth closer to $6 billion, and that O’Brien was trying to damage him by deflating the number.

After Thursday’s debate, Romney tweeted that being audited should not stop Trump from releasing his returns.

“No legit reason (Trump) can’t release returns while being audited, but if scared, release earlier returns no longer under audit,” he tweeted, adding: “There are more #bombshells or he would release them.”

In an interview immediately following the debate, Trump suggested the IRS was targeting him because of his faith.

“I’m always audited by the IRS, which I think is very unfair — I don’t know, maybe because of religion, maybe because of something else, maybe because I’m doing this, although this is just recently,” Trump told CNN. “Maybe because of the fact that I’m a strong Christian, and I feel strongly about it, and maybe there’s a bias.”

There’s not, says the IRS.

“The IRS stresses that audits of tax returns are based on the information contained on the taxpayer’s return and the underlying tax law – nothing else. Politics and religion do not factor into this,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement.

It’s more likely the wealth that’s to blame, Prof. Bankman said.

“Large companies are usually audited every year, and if Trump is as wealthy as he claims, then constant audit is not surprising,” he said.

Romney’s attacks on Trump and the businessman’s blustering response gave a perfect – and rare – opening for his rivals to trump the front-runner.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz pointed out that he made public five years of returns when he was running for U.S. Senate, and was set to release two more years.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also seized the opportunity to get one over Trump.

“There’s nothing really that interesting in them,” Rubio said about his tax returns. “So I have no problem releasing them. And luckily I’m not being audited this year – or last year, for that matter.”

His campaign plans to release the candidate’s tax returns this weekend, Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant told McClatchy.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich also will release his tax returns soon, campaign spokesman Chris Schrimpf told McClatchy. The timing of the release is still being worked out, he said.

As for the Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released eight years of tax returns, dating from 2007 to 2014, in July. The documents showed Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, brought in nearly $28 million in gross income, paid close to $10 million in taxes and made more than $3 million in gifts to charity in 2014. Since 2007, the Clintons have paid more than $57 million in taxes and $14.9 million in gifts to charity. Clinton also posted her tax returns on her campaign website, the only candidate to take such a step.

And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made $205,271 in gross income in 2014, according to excerpts from released tax returns. That income and his net worth are paltry, however, in comparison with his fellow senators. The average net worth of a U.S. senator in 2014 was $10.2 million, while Bernie Sanders’ was $436,013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign finances.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen