By Michael Balsamo, Michael R. Sisak and Michelle L. Price
Donald Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination as he testified under oath Wednesday in the New York attorney general's long-running civil investigation into his business dealings, the former president said in a statement.
Trump arrived at Attorney General Letitia James' Manhattan offices in a motorcade shortly before 9 a.m., 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 said answering questions in a deposition was risky because anything he said could potentially be used against him in a parallel criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney. The Fifth Amendment protects people from being compelled to be witnesses against themselves in a criminal case.
Still, New York University law professor Stephen Gillers said he was surprised, given Trump's previous experience with depositions, a legal term for sworn testimony that’s not given in court.
“Jousting with lawyers at depositions, while avoiding lying, is something he’s proud of,” Gillers said. “Perhaps his lawyers feared that his impetuosity would imperil him.”
Trump has undergone many depositions, dating to his career as a real estate developer. He has sometimes seemed to relish giving answers: For example, he said he was “pleased to have had the opportunity to tell my side” last October in a lawsuit brought by protesters who say his security guard roughed them up outside Trump Tower in 2015.
However, Trump invoked the Fifth Amendment to refuse to answer 97 questions in a 1990 divorce deposition.
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.
New York's investigation, led by James, involves allegations that Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, misled lenders and tax authorities about the value of prized assets like golf courses and skyscrapers.
“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 an investigation against Trump, his company or both. The Republican's deposition was one of the few remaining missing pieces.
Once the investigation wraps up, the attorney general could decide to bring a lawsuit seeking financial penalties against Trump or his company, or even a ban on them being involved in certain types of businesses.
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 authorized to speak publicly and did so on condition of anonymity. It's unclear whether they invoked the Fifth Amendment during their depositions. When Eric Trump, their brother, sat for a deposition in the same investigation in 2020, he invoked the Fifth more than 500 times, according to court papers.
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.
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’s also accused James, who is Black, of racism in pursuing the investigation.
People generally don't have a constitutional right to avoid questions in a civil lawsuit, but Trump's legal team fought James' attempt to question him for months, arguing that the district attorney's parallel investigation created a risk he could face criminal charges. Lawyers in James' office have assisted with that criminal investigation.
Manhattan Judge Arthur Engoron ruled that James’ office had “the clear right” to question Trump and other principals in his company — though Trump also had a right to decline to answer questions because of the criminal case.
That criminal probe had appeared to be progressing toward a possible criminal indictment, but stalled after a new district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, 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.
The district attorney's investigation has already led to criminal charges against the Trump Organization and its longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, who are accused of tax fraud related to fringe benefits offered by the company.
Weisselberg and the company's lawyers are scheduled to be in court Friday to argue that the case should be dismissed.
Balsamo and Sisak reported from Washington. Associated Press journalist Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.
Updated August 10, 2022, at 1:25 p.m. ET with perspective from law professor, background on Trump's previous experience in depositions; minor editing.