Donald Trump's tax returns: Here's why they could do more harm than good for his campaign

AP

For months, the campaign's line has been the same: Donald Trump's tax returns are under government audit and will be released when the financial inquiry is complete. For someone with ties to buildings and businesses all over the world, this sounds plausible.

But there may be more nefarious reasons for Trump to keep his returns private until the election. And according to the IRS, whether Trump's taxes are being audited does not affect his personal right to release them.

Presidential nominees have long released their tax returns to show the public how they earn and manage their money. In the last nine presidential cycles, the GOP nominee has released his tax returns. And Trump is far from the first presidential nominee of substantial wealth. Recent multi-millionaire nominees  like John Kerry and Mitt Romney released detailed tax documentation. 

A protester outside the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington DC challenges Donald Trump for not releasing his tax returns.  Jim Watson/Getty Images

Even though Trump has said there is "nothing to learn" from his taxes, most financial analysts beg to differ. To date, Trump has only released his financial disclosure to the Federal Election Commission that claims his net worth is $10 billion — with little justification for that figure.  

A full tax return would offer far more detail. It would show Trump's taxable income and it would show Trump's effective tax rate — which may be very low. For a man who deals with constant litigation and financial misfortune, these may be numbers Trump does not want widely known. Numerous reports have shown Trump has, at times, owed up to hundreds of millions of dollars to various creditors. 

There is no doubt Trump is extremely wealthy. Forbes estimates his net worth at $4.5 billion — less than half Trump's claim last year. But in an embarrassing twist for a candidate who rails against companies and executives who take advantage of the tax code, Trump's returns could show he pays little-to-no taxes.

The question we may never have answered: Is Donald Trump hiding something in his tax returns?  Gerald Herbert/AP

The chances the public will ever glean this information from Trump's tax returns is unlikely. Trump has a history of making his tax specifics difficult to find, even during litigation. And while everyone from Democrats to Warren Buffett to Mitt Romney have tried to make Trump's tax returns a political issue, Trump has continued to dodge any release of his returns. 

In fact, in a revealing defense of not releasing his taxes, Trump cited Romney's 2012 release of his tax documents. Trump said Democrats found "little things" and turned them into political liabilities for Romney. That is reason enough, Trump says, for why he should not release his much larger tax returns. "He might have lost the election over that," Trump said.