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Judge orders Trump to testify in fraud probe

February 17, 2022

The former US President has been ordered to answer questions under oath in a probe on alleged fraudulent practices at his family business. However, Trump is almost certain to appeal the decision.

The Trump Building in New York's financial district
The business practices of the Trump family and Trump Organization have been closely scrutinizedImage: Mark Lennihan/AP Photo/picture alliance

A New York judge ruled on Thursday that former US President Donald Trump and two of his adult children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, must give statements under oath in a civil probe into allegations the Trump Organization misled banks and tax officials. 

Judge Arthur Engoron said the New York attorney general had "the clear right" to question the Trumps after having uncovered "copious evidence of possible financial fraud."

Engoron directed the Trumps to submit to questioning within three weeks, however, Trump's lawyers can appeal the decision in what could be a lengthy process. 

Why is Trump under investigation?

New York Attorney General Letitia James said last month that a nearly three-year investigation into the Trump Organization had uncovered significant evidence of fraud. 

Donald Trump, Eric, Ivanka und Donald Jr.
Donald Trump along with his children Eric, left, Ivanka and Donald Jr.Image: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images/TNS/abaca/picture alliance

James' investigators have alleged the Trump Organization has a "fraudulent or misleading'' pattern of saying properties like golf courses or skyscrapers were worth more when they wanted better deals on loans, and worth less when they wanted tax breaks.

One example cited Trump's financial statements showing an apartment he owned measuring 30,000 square feet, when it was in fact a third that size.

Earlier this month, Trump was dropped by his longtime accounting firm, which said that ten years' worth of financial statements prepared for his company, using information Trump provided, were no longer reliable.

How is Trump responding?

Trump has called the civil investigation a political "witch hunt" and his lawyers have argued that asset evaluations can be subjective.

 Letitia James
Trump claims Democrat Letitia James' investigation is politically motivatedImage: Richard Drew/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Trumps have not yet been charged with any criminal wrongdoing. 

James' civil probe is separate from a criminal inquiry being carried out by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg looking into the Trump Organization's business practices.

Trump's lawyers have argued that in seeking civil testimony, James is trying to get around protection under New York law that bars prosecutors from  calling someone to testify before a criminal grand jury without giving them immunity.

"If she wants sworn testimony from my client, he's entitled to immunity. He gets immunity for what he says, or he says nothing,'' Trump's criminal defense lawyer, Ronald Fischetti, said during the hearing.

As anything someone says during a civil deposition can also be used against them in a criminal probe, witnesses can invoke the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent at any time.

If Trump is forced to testify in the civil probe, he could simply refuse to answer any questions.

However, his lawyers argue that if the criminal case goes to a grand jury, Trump's refusal to answer questions in the civil case would damage any criminal defense. 

wmr/wd (AP, Reuters)