Trump invoked right not to answer questions over 400 times: US media

Former president Donald Trump said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP, NYTIMES) - Former US President Donald Trump invoked his legal right not to answer questions more than 400 times during a deposition about alleged fraud at his family real estate business, US media reported on Thursday (Aug 11).

The 76-year-old Trump was questioned for four hours on Wednesday at the Manhattan office of Letitia James, the New York state attorney general, who is investigating the business practices of the Trump Organisation.

The Washington Post said Mr Trump stated his name and then cited the Fifth Amendment – which allows individuals to decline to answer questions to avoid self-incrimination – more than 400 times.

In response to queries from investigators about his businesses, property valuations and loans, Mr Trump repeatedly replied “Same answer,” the Post said, a reference to the Fifth Amendment.

NBC News, citing a source with knowledge of the deposition, said Trump invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 440 times.

In a statement, Trump, whose Florida home was the target of an FBI search on Monday, defended his use of the Fifth Amendment.

“I declined to answer the questions under the rights and privileges afforded to every citizen under the United States Constitution,” he 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,” he added.

He later described the deposition as “very professional.” “Have a fantastic company with great assets, very little debt, and lots of CASH. Only in America!” he wrote on his Truth Social site.

Mr Trump answered only one question, about his name, toward the beginning of the interview, one of his lawyers, Mr Ronald Fischetti, said. Then, he read a statement accusing the attorney-general, who sat across from him, of having "openly campaigned on a policy of destroying me".

Ms James did not visibly react.

'Witch hunt'

Since March 2019, Ms James' office has investigated whether Mr Trump and his company improperly inflated the value of his hotels, golf clubs and other assets.

Mr Trump has long dismissed the inquiry from Ms James, a Democrat, as a partisan "witch hunt". In his statement on Wednesday, he cast it as part of a grander conspiracy against him, linking it to the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago, his home and private club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Monday (Aug 8).

"I once asked, 'If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?'" he said in the statement. "Now I know the answer to that question." He said he was being targeted by lawyers, prosecutors and the news media, and that left him with "no choice".

But there are other reasons Mr Trump may have decided not to answer questions. While Ms James' inquiry is civil, and she cannot file criminal charges against the former president, the Manhattan district attorney's office has been conducting a parallel criminal investigation into whether Mr Trump fraudulently inflated valuations of his properties. Any misstep from the former president in his deposition could have breathed new life into that inquiry.

Mr Trump had not been expected to invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination. He has long considered himself his best spokesman, and those who had questioned him in the past, as well as some of his own advisers, believed he was unlikely to stay quiet.

'Mob takes the Fifth'

His decision could have a significant impact on any trial if Ms James' investigation leads to a lawsuit. Jurors in civil matters can draw a negative inference when a defendant invokes his or her Fifth Amendment privilege, unlike in criminal cases, where exercising the right against self-incrimination cannot be held against the defendant.

In the past, Mr Trump has ridiculed witnesses for invoking their Fifth Amendment rights, once remarking at a rally that, "You see the mob takes the Fifth", and, "If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?"

His decision to decline to answer questions throughout the day means he did not unwittingly aid the Manhattan district attorney's investigation, which was nearing an indictment of the former president this year before losing momentum.

James suspects the Trump Organization fraudulently overstated the value of real estate properties when applying for bank loans, while understating them with tax authorities to pay less in taxes.

If Ms James, a Democrat, finds any evidence of financial misconduct, she can sue the Trump Organization for damages but cannot file criminal charges since it is a civil investigation.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office is running a parallel probe into the Trump Organisation that does have the potential for criminal charges.

Ms James’s office confirmed Trump had “invoked his Fifth Amendment right” and said she will “pursue the facts and the law wherever they may lead.”

The FBI and Justice Department have declined so far to publicly provide a reason for Monday’s raid on Trump’s palatial Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida.

The district attorney, Mr Alvin Bragg, has developed concerns about proving a case against Mr Trump, but he has said that he is monitoring Ms James' investigation and planned to scrutinise Mr Trump's responses on Wednesday.

The former president's decision not to answer those questions may forestall new avenues in that investigation.

Other inquiries

Mr Trump is also contending with a litany of other inquiries.

Along with the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago, federal prosecutors are questioning witnesses about his involvement in efforts to reverse his election loss; a House select committee held a series of hearings tying him more closely to the Jan 6 attack on the Capitol; and a district attorney in Georgia is investigating potential election interference on the part of Mr Trump and his allies.

Ms James' inquiry could wrap up sooner than those investigations.

If she ultimately sues Mr Trump - and if Ms James prevails at trial - a judge could impose steep financial penalties on Mr Trump and restrict his business operations in New York.

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