HOUSTON, Texas — Donald Trump cited ongoing tax audits as the reason he is delaying releasing his tax returns despite pressure from former GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
During Thursday night's Republican debate in Houston, the billionaire said he will "absolutely" release his return, "but 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."
But that argument carries little weight. An audit doesn't prevent someone from releasing their tax return, the IRS says.
"Federal privacy rules prohibit the IRS from discussing individual tax matters. Nothing prevents individuals from sharing their own tax information," the IRS said in a statement released to NBC News.
Immediately following the GOP debate, Trump told CNN's Chris Cuomo that he thought he might be being audited because of his religious beliefs. "Well, maybe because of the fact that I'm a strong Christian, and I feel strongly about it and maybe there's a bias," Trump said.
CNN's Anderson Cooper pressed Trump later, asking if the businessman really thought the IRS was targeting him for religious reasons. "Well, I know they certainly had a lot of problems, I mean, if you look at what's been happening over the years — I don't think, I don't think it applies," Trump said.
"But I can tell you one thing: I am audited when I shouldn't be audited. ... I tell my people: 'Why is it that every single year, I'm audited, whereas other people that are very rich … are never audited' — and they don't even know what I'm talking about when I talk about audits."
The IRS insists that Trump's audits have nothing to do with anything other than the financial information he gave to 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. The audit process is handled by career, non-partisan civil servants, and we have processes in place to safeguard the exam process," the IRS said.
When asked about his previous statements during the 10th GOP debate — that his returns will be "out at some point, probably" — Trump instead lashed out at the man asking the questions. Biting back at conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump asserted that "very few people listen to your radio show. That's the good news."
However, when Trump appeared on Hewitt's show earlier this week, he touted the size of his returns and floated that he's "audited all the time" by the government. He said then, "I think every single year, I've had an audit for years." He did not, however, say that he was currently being audited or working on tax files that were in the process of being audited.
"So it's, you know, one of those things," he told Hewitt previously. "But we are working. They're very complex papers, but we're working on it."
Trump's tax punt drew ire from his fellow Republicans on stage, specifically Cruz and Rubio who will be releasing their own returns in the coming days.
Romney, who got the ball rolling Wednesday by tweeting that there was "good reason to believe that there's a bombshell in Donald Trump's taxes," was also unimpressed.
He tweeted again, saying Trump had "no legit reason" not to release his returns but that "if scared" Trump should "release earlier returns no longer under audit." Romney himself has been audited in the past, but it's unclear if those were some of the years that he released during his run.