Whenever the issue of his secret tax returns comes up, Donald Trump has a go-to answer: the Republican presidential candidate claims he's being audited by the IRS. If that's true -- and it's hard to say with certainty whether or not the audit is real -- it's not much of an excuse, since he could release the materials anyway, just as then-President Nixon did during his audit.
Nevertheless, Trump is sticking to his line, just as he did during a Fox News interview last night. "Just so you understand, I'm under audit," the GOP nominee said. "A routine audit. And when the audit's complete I'll release my returns. I don't know when that's gonna be. But when the audits complete I will release my returns."
Host Bill O'Reilly added, "But people say you can do it while being audited," which is true. Trump replied, "No one would recommend that."
True to form, the Republican candidate quickly tried to change the subject, turning the discussion into an attack against Hillary Clinton, though he may not have thought this one through.
"In the meantime, [Clinton] has 33,000 emails that she deleted. When is she going to release her emails? She probably knows how to find it. Let her release her emails, and I'll release my tax returns immediately."
As a factual matter, Trump is referring to personal messages that are long gone. There's no real point to the demands.
But even putting that aside, NBC News' First Read team noticed the more pressing problem: "That last line -- 'Let her release her emails, and I'll release my tax returns immediately' -- undermines the audit argument. It implies the audit isn't the real excuse."
Quite right. For months, Trump's line has at least been relatively consistent: he can't release his tax returns like other candidates have done because of the alleged IRS audit. Even if Trump wanted to err on the side of disclosure, the argument goes, it'd be irresponsible for him to disclose the documents at such a sensitive time. His hands are tied. It's not a realistic option.
Except last night, Trump effectively admitted that the entire excuse is a sham. He's prepared to release his tax returns "immediately" -- audit or no audit -- if Clinton gives up personal emails that were deleted years ago.
In other words, Trump realizes he has a choice and he's decided to be the first major-party nominee since Watergate to hide his tax returns from public view. The audit, according to his own comments, is irrelevant.
Keep this in mind the next time Trump and his team roll out the excuse the candidate himself has now discredited.