The Outspoken Mr. Trump Stays Silent in AG James’ Office
By Dov Katzenstein
In a week full of news about legal investigations focused on former President Donald Trump, the man known for his combativeness made headlines for staying quiet on one of those cases, pleading the 5th over 400 times in a deposition in New York State Attorney General Letitia James’ civil suit regarding the mogul’s business dealings.
The testimony, or lack thereof, was part of a long running effort by the Attorney General to nab Mr. Trump and others in his business circle with overestimating the value of assets belonging to the Trump Organization.
Mr. Trump justified his refusal to answer questions by painting the investigation as politically motivated. In a statement after the deposition, he vaguely referenced a comment he made on the 2016 campaign trail that then opponent Hilary Clinton’s decision to do the same was a sign of guilt.
“I once asked, ‘If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?’ Now I know the answer to that question,” 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.”
Following the questioning, Mrs. James’ office did not have much to say either.
“While we will not comment on specific details, we can confirm that today, our office conducted a deposition of former president Donald Trump,” said a spokesman for her office. “Attorney General Letitia James took part in the deposition during which Mr. Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Attorney General James will pursue the facts and the law wherever they may lead. Our investigation continues.”
Mrs. James swore to dog Mr. Trump with legal headaches early in his presidency. This effort has led to two New York-based investigations. A civil suit, in which the present deposition was part, is built on the state’s claim that it has “significant” 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.” This case also accuses accounting firm Cushman & Wakefield of wrongdoing in its appraisals. The firm, like Mr. Trump, have denied any wrongdoing.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office is pursuing a criminal probe into the Trump Organization’s financial statements. It is led by DA Alvin Bragg, who inherited the case from his predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr. That case has dragged and has yet to produce charges. While the two investigations are separate, evidence gathered in one could be used in the other.
Mr. Trump arrived at the Attorney General’s office last Wednesday at around 9 a.m., not emerging until 3:20 p.m. An unidentified source told media that the meeting began with a tense mood but turned to a business-like atmosphere as questioning started. Mr. Trump read a pre-prepared statement decrying the investigation in terms similar to those of his public remarks, calling Mrs. James a “renegade prosecutor” on a “vindictive and self-serving fishing expedition,” according to CNN, which reviewed the document.
Mr. Trump said at the outset that he “declined to answer the questions under the rights and privileges afforded to every citizen under the United States Constitution.”
As state attorneys went through a barrage of questions relating to Mr. Trump’s business dealings, he consistently responded “same answer.”
The Constitution’s 5th amendment is intended to prevent those accused of wrongdoing from incriminating themselves. As such, it is possible that some in the public, or a jury, could take his refusal to answer questions as an admission of guilt.
Yet, as Mr. Trump’s own statements on the matter imply, suspects can have any number of reasons for using the 5th Amendment as a pretext to decline to respond to questions.
While the former President rarely passes up an opportunity to express his feelings in public, a lifetime in the high echelons of the real estate sector has taught him that litigation is very different than business or politics. It is highly likely that his attorneys determined that the state’s case will be hurt or stymied by his lack or participation and as such, staying quiet was the best strategy.
“Whether or not he himself is directly connected to the statements that they claim are false or misrepresented in the tax filings and other things is a question that they may not be able to solve without his testimony,” Joshua Schiller, of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, told Politico. “Absent them having documentary evidence or testimony by others that say, ‘Well, he told me to do this or it was his instructions,’ then maybe she won’t be able to build a case that specifically implicates him.”
The fact that the state’s cases have dragged for so long might imply that the evidence against Mr. Trump is not as strong as they claim. Property owners routinely try to put their holding in the best light and bringing a suit, much less a criminal charge, could be fraught.
Additionally challenging for the Attorney General is the fact that no lenders have claimed they lost money based on any Trump Organization financial statements, making fraud difficult to prove.
On the political side, Mr. Trump has little to lose by refusing to answer the state’s questions as he has already largely discredited the investigation among potential supporters for a 2024 presidential run.
He said previously that New York is “doing everything within their corrupt discretion to interfere with my business relationships, and with the political process.”
While Mrs. James goal, by her own admission, was to discredit Mr. Trump and bog down his political agenda in a legal quagmire, her efforts might backfire.
The present deposition comes against the background of the recent FBI raid on the Trump compound in Mar-a-Lago, which has been roundly criticized by Republicans for the appearance of the Justice Department being used as a political cudgel. Actions by New York and multi-pronged efforts by the Biden administration DOJ, some feel are not only an concerted effort to put Mr. Trump under legal attack, but to keep his divisive name in the headlines ahead of upcoming mid-term elections.
That is a narrative which Mr. Trump has no problem amplifying in public while remaining silent in the deposition room.
“If there was any question in my mind, the raid of my home, Mar-a-Lago, on Monday by the FBI, just two days prior to this deposition, wiped out any uncertainty. 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 in a social media statement.
At the same time, Mrs. James has done little to cover the political motivations of investigations which figured prominently in her 2018 re-election campaign. At a time when the state is struggling against levels of violent crime not seen since the early 1990s, her office has been largely focused on national issues such as the former President, the NRA, and responses to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Mr. Trump’s legal papers in the New York suit cite a statement by Daniel Goldman, a former 2019 Trump impeachment prosecutor and current congressional candidate, that Mrs. James’ actions could “give the appearance of an individualized political vendetta.”
Yet, Mrs. James, a staunch progressive with unknown political ambitions, might have little to lose by giving such an impression.
“Donald Trump has never been popular in New York. Not before he was president, not during his presidency and not post presidency,” said Steven Greenberg, a Democratic strategist and poll spokesman for the Siena College Research Institute, told Politico. “This can only be a political benefit for James. It can’t be a political hit for her — certainly not with her base.”
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