Former President Donald Trump just pulled a move he used to say was reserved for guilty people and the mob: He took the Fifth.
Trump invoked his Constitutional Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions in his deposition with attorneys for New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday, he said in a statement.
The move carries a rich irony for Trump, given his long-standing public insistence that no innocent person would ever do such a thing.
And Trump did it at a moment when his legal problems are intensifying. Just two days ago, FBI agents executed a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club and residence in Palm Beach, Florida, to look for sensitive documents that Trump may have brought with him from the White House after he stepped down from power.
In a lengthy statement on Wednesday morning, Trump reiterated his grievances against prosecutors and other officials, accusing them of waging a witch hunt against him.
“I have absolutely no choice because the current Administration and many prosecutors in this Country have lost all moral and ethical bounds of decency,” Trump said. “Accordingly, under the advice of my counsel and for all of the above reasons, I declined to answer the questions under the rights and privileges afforded to every citizen under the United States Constitution.”
In the past, Trump has said: "You see the mob takes the Fifth.”
Now, he said, he’s changed his mind.
“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.”
Trump’s move is just the latest skirmish in the long-running legal battle between Trump and James over his company’s business practices.
James has claimed in court documents that Trump’s company made false representations about the valuations of various assets, and said his company engaged in “fraudulent or misleading” practices.
James’ team has said that it “has developed significant additional evidence indicating that the Trump Organization used fraudulent or misleading asset valuations to obtain a host of economic benefits, including loans, insurance coverage, and tax deductions.”
Legal experts of all stripes—from defense attorneys to prosecutors and law professors—maintain that the Fifth Amendment is an important component of U.S. legal protection for average citizens, and that using it should not be seen as an admission of guilt in a criminal matter.
James, however, is running a civil investigation. And in a civil matter, invoking the Fifth can be used as reason to make what lawyers call an “adverse inference”—or, in plain terms, the conclusion that someone didn’t want to answer because the truth didn’t look good.
A parallel criminal investigation into Trump’s business affairs has been underway for months, and has been led by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Trump’s lawyers have argued it’s not fair for him to be questioned in a civil case when a criminal investigation is also pending.
Trump’s son, Eric Trump, invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 500 times in prior testimony in the NY Attorney General’s investigation. Two of Trump’s other children, Don Jr. and Ivanka, have also testified recently.
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