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Donald Trump says he took the fifth amendment in New York investigation

Former US president Donald Trump gestures as he departs Trump Tower on Wednesday August 10 2022 in New York (Julia Nikhinson/AP)
Former US president Donald Trump gestures as he departs Trump Tower on Wednesday August 10 2022 in New York (Julia Nikhinson/AP)

Former US president Donald Trump said he invoked the fifth amendment and would not answer questions under oath in the long-running New York civil investigation into his business dealings.

Mr Trump arrived at New York attorney general Letitia James’ offices in a motorcade shortly before 9am on Wednesday, saying more than an hour later he “declined to answer the questions under the rights and privileges afforded to every citizen under the United States Constitution”.

Anything he said during the deposition could have been used against him in a criminal case.

While Ms James’ investigation is civil in nature, the Manhattan district attorney is running a parallel criminal probe.

The fifth amendment establishes a person’s right not to “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”.

The motorcade of former US president Donald Trump arrives at an office building for depositions in a civil investigation
The motorcade of former US president Donald Trump arrives at an office building for depositions in a civil investigation (Stefan Jeremiah/AP)

In the most direct sense, that means criminal defendants do not have to give damning evidence in their own cases.

But it has come to apply in non-criminal contexts too.

Mr Trump’s statement said: “I once asked, ‘If you’re innocent, why are you taking the fifth amendment?’

“Now I know the answer to that question.

“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 Mr 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 criminal investigation.

His decision comes just days after 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.

Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach
Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach (Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post/AP)

The civil investigation, led by Ms James, involves allegations that Mr Trump’s company, the Trump Organisation, 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,” Mr Trump wrote beforehand on Truth Social, the social media platform he founded.

“Banana Republic!”

Messages seeking comment were left with Ms James’ office and Mr Trump’s lawyer.

In May, Ms James’ office said it was nearing the end of its probe and investigators had amassed substantial evidence that could support legal action against Mr Trump, his company or both.

The Republican’s deposition — a legal term for sworn evidence that is not given in court — was one of the few remaining missing pieces, the attorney general’s office said.

Two of Mr Trump’s adult children, Donald Jnr and Ivanka, have given evidence in recent days, two people familiar with the matter said.

Former president Donald Trump, right, departs Trump Tower on Wednesday August 10 2022 in New York
Former president Donald Trump, right, departs Trump Tower on Wednesday August 10 2022 in New York (Julia Nikhinson/AP)

The people were not authorised to speak publicly and did so on condition of anonymity.

The three Trumps’ evidence 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 Jnr and another son, Eric Trump, who sat for a deposition in Ms James’ investigation in 2020.

On Friday, the Trump Organisation and its longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, were due 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 Ms James’ office.

Mr Weisselberg and the company have pleaded not guilty.

Ms James, a Democrat, has said in court filings that her office has uncovered “significant” evidence that Mr Trump’s company “used fraudulent or misleading asset valuations to obtain a host of economic benefits, including loans, insurance coverage, and tax deductions”.

Ms James alleges the Trump Organisation 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 Mr Trump’s place among the world’s billionaires.

The company even exaggerated the size of Mr Trump’s Manhattan penthouse, saying it was nearly three times its actual size — a difference in value of about 200 million dollars (£163.4 million), Ms James’ office said.

A Donald Trump supporter stands on a bridge outside the entrance to the former president's Mar-a-Lago estate
A Donald Trump supporter stands on a bridge outside the entrance to the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Mr Trump has denied the allegations, explaining that seeking the best valuations is a common practice in the real estate industry.

He says Ms 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 Ms James, who is black, of racism in pursuing the investigation.

“There is no case,” Mr Trump said in a February statement, after Manhattan Judge Arthur Engoron ruled that Ms James’ office had “the clear right” to question Mr Trump and other principals in his company.

Once her investigation wraps up, Ms James could decide to bring a lawsuit and seek financial penalties against Mr 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 a parallel criminal investigation.

No former president has been charged with a crime.

That probe had appeared to be progressing toward a possible criminal indictment of Mr 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 Mr Bragg raised questions internally about the viability of the case.

Mr Bragg has said his investigation is continuing.