Former president Donald Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment rights on Wednesday, declining to answer questions from the New York State attorney general’s office as part of a civil investigation into whether he and his company had misled lenders and tax authorities about the value of his assets. “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,” Trump said in a statement.
Trump has suggested on many occasions that people who invoke their right against self-incrimination are guilty. “You see the mob takes the Fifth,” Trump said during a 2016 rally in Iowa. “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” The line was a jab at his opponent, Hillary Clinton, whose aides had invoked the Fifth in a congressional investigation. Trump used similar attack lines so many times that MSNBC was able to put together a compilation video earlier this year.
While Trump often refuses to acknowledge his own hypocrisy, this time he (or whoever drafted his statement) felt it was such an egregious turnabout that it had to be addressed.
“I once asked, ‘If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?’” the statement says. “Now I know the answer to that question. 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 that the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago earlier this week, which is unrelated to the civil investigation led by New York attorney general Letitia James, convinced him that many prosecutors “have lost all moral and ethical bounds of decency.”
While James can’t file criminal charges against Trump as part of the civil inquiry, the New York Times notes, “the Manhattan district attorney’s office has been conducting a parallel criminal investigation into whether Mr. Trump fraudulently inflated valuations of his properties.” While jurors in criminal cases are instructed not to hold it against the defendant if they exercise their Fifth Amendment rights, that would not be the case if James’s probe leads to a lawsuit. “Jurors in civil matters can draw a negative inference when a defendant invokes his or her Fifth Amendment privilege,” per the paper. And those jurors may be likelier to do so after hearing a U.S. president repeatedly declare that invoking the Fifth is “disgraceful.”
Trump’s apparent misstep should serve as a lesson to all of us about dismissing constitutional rights we think we’d never use. I know I’ll think twice before making another joke about being forced to quarter soldiers in my house.
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