By Karen Freifeld
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Former U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he declined to answer questions during an appearance before New York state's attorney general in a civil investigation into his family's business practices, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr. and daughter Ivanka Trump had fought unsuccessfully to avoid appearing for testimony in state Attorney General Letitia James's probe into whether the Trump Organization inflated real estate values to obtain favorable loans and understated asset values to get tax breaks.
"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 issued roughly an hour after he arrived in a motorcade at the attorney general's office in lower Manhattan for the deposition behind closed doors.
The Constitution's Fifth Amendment protects against self-incrimination. Trump's decision not to answer questions still could carry consequences. Should the investigation lead to a trial, jurors could take his silence into account. Politically, it also could give adversaries ammunition about whether Trump has something to hide as he mulls another presidential run in 2024.
James has said her investigation has uncovered significant evidence that the Trump Organization, which manages hotels, golf courses and other real estate, gave banks and tax authorities misleading financial information to obtain benefits.
Trump left her office about six hours after arriving, suggesting he faced questioning for much of the day. In a social media post after the deposition, Trump called it a "very professional meeting," while boasting about his company.
A spokesperson for the New York attorney general's office said in a statement that James participated in the deposition and confirmed that Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.
"Attorney General James will pursue the facts and the law wherever they may lead," the spokesperson added. "Our investigation continues."
Trump, a Republican, in his statement again denied wrongdoing and sought to portray the investigation by James, a Democrat, as part of a years-long vendetta against him by her and others including the news media.
He also attempted to link James's investigation to Monday's FBI search of his Florida home Mar-a-Lago, which represented an escalation of a federal probe into whether he illegally removed records from the White House as he left office in January 2021.
"I once asked, 'If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?'" Trump said. "Now I know the answer to that question."
Trump added, "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."
In the statement, Trump also made disparaging comments about James and violent crime in New York state.
Trump agreed in June to testify in the three-year-old investigation, but only after court decisions rejecting his argument that he should not have to do so because the probe was politically motivated.
His lawyers also argued that Trump's words could be unfairly used against him in a related criminal probe led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in which James also is involved. Two top prosecutors in that case resigned in March, with one saying Bragg was skeptical of bringing charges against Trump. A Bragg spokeswoman on Wednesday said that criminal probe continues.
'THE MOB TAKES THE FIFTH'
Trump previously disparaged people for exercising Fifth Amendment rights.
"The mob takes the Fifth," Trump said during a 2016 campaign rally. "If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?"
He was referring to people who had exercised their Fifth Amendment rights in a probe relating to Democrat Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for official correspondence during her time as secretary of state. Clinton was Trump's opponent in the presidential election that year.
Trump raised his fist as he left Trump Tower on Wednesday morning, wearing a blue suit with a flag pin on his lapel, before heading to the deposition. Police officers and Secret Service personnel stood guard as the motorcade transporting him arrived.
A crowd of about 200 people then waited outside for Trump to emerge. One man shouted, "We love you, save us," as Trump's vehicle left. Two other men minutes earlier chanted, "Lock him up," words some Trump supporters previously used toward Clinton.
Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump also testified in recent weeks in James' probe, according to a person familiar with the matter. Reuters could not determine whether they declined to answer questions. Their brother Eric Trump invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 500 times while testifying in 2020.
Monday's FBI search related to the National Archives and Records Administration, which safeguards presidential records that belong to the public, and whether classified documents were kept at Mar-a-Lago, according to a person familiar with the matter.
On social media, Trump again on Wednesday complained about the search as a "surprise attack."
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld in New York; Additional reporting by Jon Stempel and Randi Love in New York and Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham and Noeleen Walder)