WASHINGTON — In September 2016, Donald J. Trump stood on the debate stage as a presidential candidate and addressed a question that had dogged him on the campaign trail: When would he release his tax return?
“I’m under a routine audit, and it’ll be released,” Mr. Trump said. “And as soon as the audit is finished, it will be released.”
Nearly four years later, the White House says the I.R.S. is still at it.
“His taxes are under audit, and when they’re no longer under audit he will release them,” Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Thursday.
In fact, every sitting president’s returns are audited as a matter of routine, and the I.R.S. has long said that nothing prevents an individual from making tax returns public while an audit is underway. Every president since Jimmy Carter has voluntarily released his returns.
So at this point, no one is expecting to see the president’s tax returns anytime soon, even though the Supreme Court issued a major ruling on Thursday that cleared the way for New York prosecutors to seek them. But there will be further skirmishing in the lower courts, and there is little chance of a final decision before the next election.
The Early Promises
Mr. Trump has promised to release his tax returns under varying conditions for nearly a decade.
In 2011, he began appearing on television to question whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States — spreading a lie that he has never fully apologized for — and suggesting that he would release his returns when Mr. Obama released his birth certificate.
“Maybe I’m going to do the tax returns when Obama does his birth certificate,” he said in an interview with ABC in April 2011. “I’d love to give my tax returns. I may tie my tax returns into Obama’s birth certificate.”
Days after that interview, Mr. Obama released his long-form birth certificate.
Mr. Trump did not keep his end of the deal. In 2014, an Irish journalist pointed out that he had never released his tax returns, even though he had coerced Mr. Obama into releasing his birth certificate. In that interview, Mr. Trump then added a new qualifier: He would release them if he ran for president.
“If I decide to run for office, I’ll produce my tax returns, absolutely,” he said during a visit to Ireland, where he promoted his golf club in Doonbeg. “And I would love to do that.”
By the time Mr. Trump was running for president in 2016, he had adopted the audit as the reason he could not release his taxes. That spring, his lawyer Sheri A. Dillon released a letter that claimed Mr. Trump’s tax returns had been under “continuous examination” by the I.R.S. since 2002, and that the audit for his tax returns since 2009 was ongoing.
Steven M. Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said in an interview that it could be normal for an audit for a taxpayer like Mr. Trump to take anywhere from six to eight years for each year filed. He called Ms. Dillon’s letter “on the mark” and said that presidents were automatically audited each year while in office. But he said there was no legal reason for Mr. Trump to hold back his tax returns.
“The excuse that he’s under audit is a non-excuse,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “He’s always under audit.”
After Mr. Trump won the election, he added another reason beyond the audit for why he was withholding his returns. In May 2017, he told The Economist that only journalists cared about his tax returns, and that he might not release them until he left office.
“Maybe I’ll release them after I’m finished because I’m very proud of them actually,” Mr. Trump said. “I did a good job.”
In reality, polls show a majority of Americans believe that the public has a right to see Mr. Trump’s tax returns, as they have seen the returns of every modern president over the last four decades. A June poll by the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of Americans said Mr. Trump had a responsibility to release them.
One critical question the returns would answer is how much Mr. Trump paid in taxes, or whether he paid taxes at all. In October 2016, an investigation by The New York Times revealed that a $916 million loss on Mr. Trump’s 1995 returns would have allowed him to legally avoid paying income taxes for 18 years. Mr. Trump declined to comment, and his campaign released a statement that neither challenged nor confirmed the $916 million loss.
Another investigation by The Times in 2018 found that Mr. Trump helped set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from his parents, assisted his father in taking improper tax deductions and undervalued his family’s real estate holdings.
On Thursday, a White House spokesman directed questions about the status of the I.R.S. audit to the Trump Organization, which did not return a request for comment.
One ruling delivered a victory to Cyrus R. Vance, the Manhattan district attorney and a Democrat, whose office sought eight years of business and personal tax records in connection with a state grand jury investigation into Mr. Trump’s role in hush-money payments made to a pornographic film star before the 2016 election.
The court ruled 7-2 that Mr. Trump was not immune from criminal proceedings while in office but sent the case back to the lower courts, where Mr. Trump’s lawyers will presumably make new arguments that the subpoena for financial records is improper.
Should Mr. Vance eventually win, as many legal experts expect, the tax returns will go to a secret grand jury that will delay the release of that information to the public, if it is released at all.
Another ruling concerned subpoenas made by several House committees to gather Mr. Trump’s financial information from his accountants and banks. The court ruled that Congress had limited power to issue those subpoenas and again sent the case to the lower courts.