Donald Trump released a statement Wednesday saying that he's invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions from the New York attorney general, who's investigating his business practices.
"I once asked, 'If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?' Now I know the answer to that question. When your family, your company, and all of 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 wrote in a statement posted on his social media site, Truth Social.
The New York office is looking into whether Trump and his children lied about the value of their real estate holdings, and the sworn testimony could have had the potential to reshape his business prospects. Instead, he said he's invoking the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination.
The deposition comes amid a swirl of investigations into Trump, including a probe into the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that led to federal agents raiding Trump's Mar-a-Lago home on Monday. It also comes ahead of a widely expected third run for the presidency that he could announce as early as this year, as he continues to perpetuate the perception that he's wealthy. The civil inquiry from New York Attorney General Letitia James and her team threatens to undermine that image.
The investigation is centered around the claim that Trump undervalued his properties when reporting taxes to the IRS, but then overvalued those same properties when it came time to use them as collateral in bank loans. Depending on the true value of the asset, the maneuver opens up the Trump organization to claims of bank fraud.
In a court filing last January, James’s office said it “has developed significant additional 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.”
‘Smoke and mirrors’ and the Trump organization
The former president was expected to face questions during his deposition under oath about a complicated topic: his net worth.
For Trump, "what matters is looking like you're a billionaire,” says Gwenda Blair, a Columbia University professor and Trump family biographer.
The perception that he has vast wealth has fueled Trump's fame and political clout and more practically, helped him secure funding necessary to keep his businesses afloat. But his actual net worth is unclear, with even Trump himself giving conflicting estimates of the assets at his disposal.
“For decades, journalists and prosecutors have tried to dig into that opaque black box called the Trump Organization but not ever gotten very far,” Blair told Yahoo Finance.
How strong would a case against Trump be?
“I am 120% confident that he pulled those types of shenanigans,” says Harry Hurt III, another former Trump biographer.
Hurt seems doubtful, though, that the public will ever be completely privy to Trump's financial dealings. Asked by Yahoo Finance if he thought the public would ever have a real sense of Trump’s net worth and whether he believes Trump was a billionaire, Hurt responded “no and no.”
If Trump is actually a billionaire behind all the “smoke and mirrors,” Hurt said, it will only be because of property in Brooklyn left behind by his father, Fred Trump, that Donald has had little to do with.
“He wants to present to the public as both a billionaire and a self-made billionaire, neither of which have ever been true,” Hurt said.
Despite doubts by some that Trump is a billionaire, Forbes estimates Trump’s wealth at $3 billion as of early August. In recent months, Forbes reports, Trump's wealth has gotten a boost thanks to investors betting on Trump Media. During a single day in October, shares of Digital World Acquisition Corp (DWAC), the special purpose acquisition company aiming to merge with Trump's social media site, jumped by over 350%.
'They even broke into my safe!'
Trump faces no shortage of groups examining his potential misconduct. The Justice Department is reportedly looking into his role in the Capitol riot as part of a criminal probe spurred on by the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. The D.C. attorney general is also preparing to go to trial over fraud at Trump’s inaugural committee. Prosecutors in Georgia are digging into his alleged interference in Georgia’s election in 2020. And the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating his arrangement with Digital World Acquisition Corp.
Monday's unannounced raid in Florida was reportedly focused on Trump's alleged mishandling of classified documents and represented a dramatic escalation of the face-off between Trump and federal officials.
"They even broke into my safe!" Trump wrote in a statement confirming the raid.
Meanwhile, at the state level, there are overlapping investigations into Trump's business practices in New York with the state attorney general's probe being the most prominent. That office has reportedly already deposed three of Trump’s children — Eric, Ivanka, and Don Jr.
During his deposition, Eric Trump asserted his Fifth Amendment rights more than 500 times, according to court filings cited by CNN. Don Jr., on the other hand, reportedly answered questions, opting not to invoke the protection against self-incrimination.
Trump over the years has repeatedly suggested that people who plead the Fifth could be guilty, though he has also invoked that amendment himself in previous instances.
The New York attorney general's office declined to comment on details of the ongoing investigation. Likewise, representatives from the Trump Organization did not respond to questions about their preparations for the upcoming testimony.
‘I look better if I'm worth $10 billion’
Trump is touchy when it comes to questions about his own net worth. He sued one biographer who wrote that he wasn’t a billionaire, and he's engaged in a long-running battle with Forbes over its calculations.
A former reporter for the magazine has revealed audiotapes from the 1980s that appear to show Trump — posing as his alter ego John Barron — falsely claiming Fred Trump’s had passed on many of his assets had to his son.
“I have learned that [Trump] should not have been on the first three Forbes 400 lists at all,” wrote the former reporter, Jonathan Greenberg.
Then during the 2016 campaign, Trump filed forms claiming to be worth $10 billion. “I look better if I'm worth $10 billion than if I'm worth $4 billion,” he told Forbes. The magazine ended up pegging his actual wealth at $4.5 billion that year.
In more recent years, Trump has fallen off the Forbes 400 as the pandemic cut into his business.
This article was originally posted on Aug. 9 and updated on Aug. 10 with the date of his deposition.
Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.