NEW YORK — Donald Trump spent hours in a deposition Wednesday with the New York attorney general and repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions, the latest in a series of ominous legal developments that would have once been considered devastating for a former president considering another run for the White House.
Trump emerged from the question-and-non-answer session with praise for the “very professional” way Attorney General Letitia James’s team handled the meeting, in which he refused more than 400 times to answer questions about his businesses, property valuations and loans, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion. This person, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the closed session, said Trump stated his name, formally declared his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, and from then on replied to many questions with two words: “Same answer.”
Less than two years after leaving office, Trump faces legal jeopardy from multiple directions, with criminal probes into his possible withholding of classified documents and efforts to overturn the 2020 election results; James’s civil probe; and congressional inquiries into his taxes and his conduct related to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
In a lengthy statement on Wednesday, the former president denied any wrongdoing and accused the U.S. government of unfairly targeting him in multiple ways. Incredibly, his deposition marked just the halfway point of what has been a frenetic week for Trump and his lawyers.
On Monday, FBI agents searched his residence and office space at his home in Mar-a-Lago, a Florida resort property. People familiar with that investigation said the agents were seeking classified documents and other presidential records amid a months-long disagreement between federal officials and Trump’s advisers about whether he withheld important files or items that belonged to the government.
One of Trump’s lawyers said agents removed about a dozen boxes of material that had not been brought back to Washington in January, when the government first asked Trump to return what he had taken to comply with the Presidential Records Act.
The following day, FBI agents involved in a different case took the cellphone of one of Trump’s most forceful congressional allies, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.). The court-approved seizure was part of an expansive Justice Department investigation into efforts by Trump supporters to block Joe Biden’s electoral victory by trying to advance fake electors in late 2020, said people familiar with that investigation, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it.
Then, on Wednesday morning, Trump arrived at a Manhattan office building to be deposed in James’s investigation of his business dealings. While the case is civil rather than criminal, any information he provided in such a deposition could be used in some of the criminal investigations surrounding him.
Delaney Kempner, a spokeswoman for James (D), confirmed that the attorney general was in the room and “took part in the deposition, during which Mr. Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.” She said James will “pursue the facts and the law wherever they may lead. Our investigation continues.”
Over the years, Trump has mocked others for taking the Fifth, suggesting that it showed guilt. “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” he taunted his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, in 2016.
Since 2019, Trump has faced criminal and civil investigations into his business practices at the Trump Organization, before he entered the White House. The criminal probe, led by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, appears to have lost momentum since the arrival of District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) in January. The civil inquiry is proceeding, however.
Trump’s deposition before James, along with testimony by his daughter Ivanka Trump and son Donald Trump Jr., had been postponed from last month because of the July 14 death of his ex-wife Ivana Trump.
Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr., who both served as executives in the family business, were deposed recently and answered questions, said a person familiar with the investigation, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity. Their brother Eric Trump, who was also a lieutenant in the company, took the Fifth more than 500 times when he sat for questioning in October 2020 in the same investigation, according to public disclosures made by James.
That Eric Trump refused to answer questions — while his siblings, two years later, were forthcoming — could reflect that attorneys for the family think the new district attorney would not pursue a case against them. Two veteran prosecutors resigned in protest earlier this year after learning Bragg was not authorizing them to seek an indictment against Donald Trump.
Bragg has said that the investigation is still active, and he appointed one of his own executives to oversee the case.
Trump has repeatedly accused the attorney general of targeting him and his business to score political points — pointing to comments James made on the campaign trail promising to investigate Trump and the Trump Organization.
In a post on Trump’s social media service, Truth Social, early Wednesday, he continued his attacks, calling the Black law enforcement official “racist” and saying he was headed to her office “for a continuation of the greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. History!”
James could file a lawsuit against the Trump Organization and its executives if she concludes that their conduct legally amounted to wrongdoing. Lawyers for Trump have said that the valuations practices with which James is concerned are standard in the real estate industry.
Tristan Snell, a former lawyer in the attorney general’s office, said investigators are probably pleased with Wednesday’s deposition, because Trump’s refusal to answer questions essentially amounts to an admission of guilt and would be seen as such if the case is tried in court.
“This is one of the best outcomes they could have hoped for going into this,” said Snell, who worked on the state’s case against Trump University, which resulted in a $25 million settlement. He said Trump’s decision to plead the Fifth only increased the odds James’s office would succeed in an enforcement action against Trump and his company.
The Fifth Amendment is invoked when there is a possibility of incriminating oneself in criminal activity. Trump repeatedly deferring to his constitutional protection at the interview “raises a strong inference” of liability in a civil case, where the burden of proof is much lower than in criminal court, Snell said.
Last year, as part of the criminal inquiry into Trump business practices, Trump’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, and the Trump Organization were indicted in connection with an alleged long-running tax avoidance scheme. Weisselberg and the company have pleaded not guilty and are due in court Friday for pretrial proceedings.
On Wednesday, after batting away questions in James’s investigation, Trump again took to social media to bash the criminal probe into White House documents, calling the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago “a surprise attack” and “POLITICS.”
Trump and his lawyers have refused to make public the copy of the federal search warrant they were given, which is under court seal but was approved by a federal judge and would indicate what crimes are being investigated.
Separately, Trump partisans have come under scrutiny in an investigation by local authorities in Georgia about his efforts to overturn the state’s election results. A grand jury has been convened for that probe and has sought testimony from people close to the former president.
And the Justice Department’s criminal probe, which began with a focus on the hundreds of people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, has expanded to include Trump’s conversations and actions during the period after the election. In recent months, agents and prosecutors have sought communications records and interviews from many members of the former president’s inner circle.
In a separate long-running inquiry involving Trump, a federal appeals court panel in D.C. ruled Tuesday that a House committee is entitled to review the former president’s tax returns for 2015 to 2020.
The decision was a victory for the House Ways and Means Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), first requested in 2019 that the Internal Revenue Service turn over copies of Trump’s tax returns to the committee. The former president has a week to appeal the ruling before it takes effect.
The investigation of Trump’s behavior related to the 2020 election by a different House committee has been much higher profile, with widely watched hearings this summer painting a damning portrait of Trump through video, audio and live testimony from many former White House aides and others.
And the work of the House panel probing Jan. 6 continues. Mike Pompeo, who served as Trump’s secretary of state and his CIA director, appeared before the committee on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it.
This person said Pompeo was asked about the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a president if they are unfit for duty, among other topics. Pompeo told the committee there was never a serious effort by Trump’s Cabinet to use the amendment, the person said.
Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said that Donald Trump Jr. had worked in the White House. The article has been corrected.
Dawsey and Barrett reported from Washington. Paul Duggan contributed to this report.
The Jan. 6 insurrection
Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held a series of high-profile hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. What was likely to be the panel’s final public hearing has been postponed because of Hurricane Ian. Here’s a guide to the biggest hearing moments so far.
Will there be charges? The committee could make criminal referrals of former president Donald Trump over his role in the attack, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview.
The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.
Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6.