Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Two court rulings are forcing Donald Trump to think about a future when the world will learn more truths about the former president than it has ever known and he may suffer crushing injuries to his mystique and his bottom line.
The most recent decision, made by federal district court Judge Amit P. Mehta in the Distict of Columbia, says lawsuits intended to hold him to account for the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol can proceed. “The President’s January 6 Rally Speech can reasonably be viewed as a call for collective action,” Mehta observed, reasoning Trump’s inciting speech prior to the attack was made not as an official with immunity from civil litigation, but as a man desperate to overturn the 2020 election.
Mehta wrote Trump likely knew far-right groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, heard his speech and “It is reasonable to infer that the President knew that these were militia groups and that they were prepared to partake in violence for him.” The suits, filed by two members of Congress and two Capitol police officers, seek damages related to the physical and psychological harm they suffered as a mob following Trump’s call for a “fight” to overturn the election rampaged through the Capitol and drove members into hiding.
The second court ruling, issued in Manhattan, opened the way for Trump and two of his adult children, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., to be questioned under oath about their businesses. New York Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron also ordered the three to sit for questions posed by prosecutors investigating possible business fraud. Thus, the family that rose together on unproven claims of great wealth may crash together under the weight of their own words.
The fight over the truth about Trump’s wealth and business operations was always going to become a family affair. As soon as they became adults, Trump made his children top executives. Nestled behind the walls of secrecy granted to privately held firms, they were trusted to do business his way, which meant they polished the image of wealth and success that was central to his identity. But this effort required that they know exactly how Trump’s world runs, which may explain why they have fought so hard to avoid questioning.
At the heart of this controversy is what Trump termed the “truthful hyperbole” he employed to promote himself and his businesses. Prime examples were seen by viewers of his TV show, “The Apprentice.” The first sentence uttered in the pilot for the show included his false claim that “I’m the largest real estate developer in New York.” After Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen said the hype became fraud in Trump’s financial claims, investigators began their pursuit of the truth.
If their appeals fail and the Trumps are deposed, the prosecutors will, for the first time, have three chances to find the loose threads that could unravel the Trump mystique. Indeed, it was Trump’s unproven claims to enormous wealth and success that powered his fame and rise to the presidency. Along the way, his children dutifully echoed his claims. They couldn’t do this without knowing the truth both the New York attorney general and Manhattan district attorney are trying to discover.
The prosecutors’ main questions revolve around the financial statements the Trump Organization submitted to lenders, insurers, tax authorities and others. Ten years’ worth of these statements were repudiated by the accounting firm that created them with data provided by Trump. In a letter recently made public, MazarsUSA, the accounting firm, warned Trump “to no longer rely upon those financial statements.” The company also severed its relationship with the organization. MazarsUSA’s announcement could affect the organization’s loans, contracts, insurance policies and tax status.
Among the discrepancies uncovered by investigators have been Trump’s claim his New York City residence is almost triple its actual size and an estate he owns in the suburbs includes seven mansions that have not been built. Since Trump has personally guaranteed more than $400 million in debt held by his companies, the value of these assets is vitally important.
The fallout from MazarsUSA action includes a Congressional committee’s call for the government to consider terminating the lease that allows him to operate a hotel in a former Washington post office. This call could disrupt Trump’s deal to sell the lease for $370 million. “No one should be rewarded for providing false or misleading information to the federal government or for seeking to profit off the presidency,” the committee said. The possible disruption of the hotel deal is just one example of the peril created as investigators bear down on Trump. As Cohen put it in an interview with the Guardian, “The house of Trump is crumbling.”
In response to the judge’s decision to require the Trumps to testify, the former president released a statement that included claims of his financial condition. In it, he offers just four numbers including assets of more than $5.7 billion and, if one does some math, liabilities of more than $500 million. With no specifics, Trump appears to ask others to accept his claims on faith and focus more on the statement’s lengthy cry of victimhood including the charge prosecutors devoted “historic amounts of time, energy and money trying to `get Trump.’”
In the District of Columbia case, the judge dealt with questions about where presidential immunity from civil suits begins, and an appeal could raise complex issues of deferral governance. The Manhattan case appears to be more ordinary, with a trial court judge finding a target of a subpoena must comply. Trump’s attorneys have not indicated whether they will appeal either ruling.
One major difference between the two decisions is that in one, the only party affected is the former president. In the others, his children are involved directly. No one can see where the struggle over the Trumps’ testimony will end, but if the three of them actually try to answer all the questions prosecutors will pose, the potential for contradictions and answers that suggest new avenues of investigation will be great. One answer to this dilemma might be for them to assert their rights to avoid self-incrimination, which are theirs thanks to the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
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In the past Donald Trump has heaped scorn on those who seek refuse in the Fifth Amendment.
“If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” he asked in a public statement that was recorded by news outlets and is sure to be replayed should he uses the same shield.
As Trump weighs the value of his secrets – and his image of wealth – against the shame of taking the Fifth, we might forecast his decision by considering how Eric Trump, his one adult child who has been deposed, handles it. He took the Fifth more than 500 times.