Former president Donald Trump on Wednesday declined to answer questions and invoked his right against self-incrimination during a deposition with investigators working for New York attorney general Letitia James’ office.
“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,” Mr Trump said at the end of a lengthy, rambling statement filled with attacks on Ms James, who has been overseeing a long-running probe into whether Mr Trump’s eponymous real estate company violated New York tax laws.
Shortly after posting on his own social media platform about having arrived at Ms James’ “very plush, beautiful, and expensive” offices, the ex-president sent out the statement through his government-funded post-presidential office.
Under an image of the Great Seal of the United States, Mr Trump accused the Empire State’s top prosecutor of “mak[ing] a career” of “attacking” him and his business and of being “a failed politician who has intentionally colluded with others” to “carry out this phony years-long crusade that has wasted countless taxpayer dollars.
“What Letitia James has tried to do the last three years is a disgrace to the legal system, an affront to New York State taxpayers, and a violation of the solemn rights and protections afforded by the United States Constitution,” said Mr Trump, who added that he “did nothing wrong”.
Mr Trump, who once famously suggested that invoking one’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was itself evidence of criminality, said he now understands why one would “take the fifth” if innocent.
“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 explained, adding that the FBI search of his Palm Beach, Florida residence as part of a federal investigation into whether he violated laws against theft of government documents and unlawful possession of classified information “wiped out any uncertainty” as to whether he’d refuse to answer questions on grounds that he might incriminate himself.
“I have absolutely no choice because the current Administration and many prosecutors in this Country have lost all moral and ethical bounds of decency,” he said.
Mr Trump’s refusal to answer questions could shield him from criminal liability in any cases brought as a result of Ms James’ probe (though under New York law she herself cannot bring criminal charges against him or his company). But because the New York attorney general’s investigation is playing out in civil court, legal experts say his decision to invoke the Fifth Amendment could be used against him if Ms James files any lawsuits against him or his company as a result of the investigation.
The ex-president’s decision not to answer any questions from Ms James or her investigators comes as the circumstances surrounding the 8 August search of his home have become clearer.
According to Newsweek, the FBI obtained its search warrant for Mr Trump’s Palm Beach home after a confidential informant told them the ex-president was continuing to harbour documents containing classified national defence information on the premises.
Multiple reports have also indicated that federal investigators obtained CCTV footage from inside the mansion turned private club after issuing a subpoena for the tapes to Mr Trump’s eponymous real estate and hotel company, the Trump Organization.
That subpoena came following a meeting between Department of Justice officials and attorneys for Mr Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where they discussed the long-running dispute over Mr Trump’s alleged retention of federal records after he left the White House in January 2021.
Officials with the Justice Department and the National Archives and Records Administration (Nara) had for months been negotiating with Mr Trump for the return of the records from his administration, which under US law are government property. In January, Nara told the House Oversight Committee that the ex-president had turned over 15 boxes of records, including documents the agency characterised as so highly classified that they could not be easily described without running afoul of US law protecting national defence secrets.
Mr Trump has claimed that he was cooperating with the government’s efforts before the search of his home and office. In the days since, he and his allies have claimed — without offering any evidence — that the search of his property is part of an improper effort to impede his potential candidacy in the 2024 election, and have accused president Joe Biden and attorney general Merrick Garland of weaponising federal law enforcement against a potential political rival of Mr Biden’s.
The twice-impeached ex-president has also accused the FBI of using the search of his property to plant unspecified evidence to incriminate him, but he has not offered any evidence to support the allegations.
Thus far, the Justice Department has declined to explain its actions or comment on the investigation into Mr Trump’s retention of federal records past his time in the White House. But legal experts say his possession of any government documents, classified or otherwise, could expose him to significant criminal liability. One law signed by Mr Trump during his time in the White House significantly stiffened the penalty for improper handling of classified information, extending the prison term for violators from one year to five.