NEW YORK, United States (AP) — Donald Trump invoked the Fifth Amendment and wouldn't answer questions under oath in the New York Attorney General's long-running civil investigation into his business dealings, the former president said in a statement Wednesday.
Trump arrived at state Attorney General Letitia James' offices in a motorcade shortly before 9:00 am, before announcing more than an hour later that he "declined to answer the questions under the rights and privileges afforded to every citizen under the United States Constitution".
"I once asked, 'If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?' Now I know the answer to that question," the statement said. "When your family, your company, and all the people in your orbit have become the targets of an unfounded politically motivated Witch Hunt supported by lawyers, prosecutors and the fake news media, you have no choice."
As vociferous as Trump has been in defending himself in written statements and on the rally stage, legal experts say the same strategy could have backfired in a deposition setting because anything he says could potentially be used in the parallel criminal investigation pursued by the Manhattan district attorney.
Messages seeking comment were left with James' office.
Wednesday's events unfolded as a flurry of legal activity surrounds the former president — just days before, FBI agents searched his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida as part of an unrelated federal probe into whether he took classified records when he left the White House.
The civil investigation, led by state Attorney General Letitia James, involves allegations that Trump's company, the Trump Organization, misstated the value of prized assets like golf courses and skyscrapers, misleading lenders and tax authorities.
"My great company, and myself, are being attacked from all sides," Trump wrote beforehand on Truth Social, the social media platform he founded. "Banana Republic!"
In May, James' office said that it was nearing the end of its probe and that investigators had amassed substantial evidence that could support legal action against Trump, his company or both. The Republican's deposition — a legal term for sworn testimony that's not given in court — was one of the few remaining missing pieces, the attorney general's office said.
Two of Trump's adult children, Donald Jr and Ivanka, testified in recent days, two people familiar with the matter said. The people were not authorised to speak publicly and did so on condition of anonymity. It's unclear whether they invoked the Fifth Amendment during their depositions. When their brother Eric Trump sat for a deposition in the same investigation in 2020, he invoked the Fifth more than 500 times, according to court papers.
The three Trumps' testimony had initially been planned for last month but was delayed after the July 14 death of the former president's ex-wife, Ivana Trump, the mother of Ivanka, Donald Jr and Eric.
On Friday, the Trump Organization and its long-time finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, will be in court seeking dismissal of tax fraud charges brought against them last year in the Manhattan district attorney's parallel criminal probe — spurred by evidence uncovered by James' office. Weisselberg and the company have pleaded not guilty.
James, a Democrat, has said in court filings that her office has uncovered "significant" evidence that Trump's company "used fraudulent or misleading asset valuations to obtain a host of economic benefits, including loans, insurance coverage, and tax deductions."
James alleges the Trump Organization exaggerated the value of its holdings to impress lenders or misstated what land was worth to slash its tax burden, pointing to annual financial statements given to banks to secure favourable loan terms and to financial magazines to justify Trump's place among the world's billionaires.
The company even exaggerated the size of Trump's Manhattan penthouse, saying it was nearly three times its actual size — a difference in value of about $200 million, James' office said.
Trump has denied the allegations, contending that seeking the best valuations is a common practice in the real estate industry. He says James' investigation is politically motivated and that her office is "doing everything within their corrupt discretion to interfere with my business relationships, and with the political process". He's also accused James, who is black, of racism in pursuing the investigation.
"THERE IS NO CASE!" Trump said in a February statement, after Manhattan Judge Arthur Engoron ruled that James' office had "the clear right" to question Trump and other principals in his company.
Once her investigation wraps up, James could decide to bring a lawsuit and seek financial penalties against Trump or his company, or even a ban on them being involved in certain types of businesses.
Meanwhile, the Manhattan district attorney's office has long pursued its parallel criminal investigation. No former president has even been charged with a crime.
In fighting to block the subpoenas, lawyers for the Trumps argued New York authorities were using the civil investigation to get information for the criminal probe and that the depositions were a ploy to avoid calling them before a criminal grand jury, where state law requires they be given immunity.
That criminal probe had appeared to be progressing toward a possible criminal indictment of Trump himself, but slowed after a new district attorney, Alvin Bragg, took office in January: A grand jury that had been hearing evidence disbanded. The top prosecutor who had been handling the probe resigned after Bragg raised questions internally about the viability of the case.
Bragg has said his investigation is continuing, which could be behind Trump's decision to decline to answer questions from James' investigators during the deposition in a Manhattan office tower that has doubled as the headquarters of the fictional conglomerate Waystar Royco — run by a character inspired partly by Trump — on HBO's Succession.