Former President Donald Trump is no stranger to legal woes, but over the course of the past week he found himself in the crosshairs of the US Justice Department yet again. His Florida property, Mar-a-Lago, was raided by FBI agents executing a search warrant, reportedly as part of an investigation into his handling of classified information.
And that’s not all. It seems his legal issues span the coast of the country as another investigation into his family’s real estate holdings is ongoing in New York. On Wednesday, Trump announced that he invoked the Fifth Amendment, which protects one’s right against being forced to assist a prosecution against themself, and refused to answer questions posed to him by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
The Fifth Amendment is an important one for anyone unlucky enough to end up sideways with the justice system. It offers citizens the protections of due process and against double jeopardy, the right to a jury trial, the right to remain silent, and other important property protections. This is really common sense stuff.
People have no obligation to incriminate themselves or assist the state in taking away their life, liberty, or property. And before the government has any moral right to take away these things, it should have to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt and before a jury that the accused actually broke a law that harmed another person.
The evidence of the necessity of this amendment is rampant within our justice system.
There have been thousands of wrongful convictions, and ample examples of officials lying under oath, manipulating evidence, and otherwise working to rig the outcomes of cases are laced throughout our history. More broadly, our criminal system coerces 95 to 99 percent of cases into plea deals—essentially forcing innocent people to admit guilt because they can’t afford to fight the state and demand a fair trial.
Yet Trump was formerly unconvinced of these things. He actually once said a version of a trite and wholly uneducated political copout “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide/fear.”
Trump vs. Trump on invoking the Fifth Amendment pic.twitter.com/n2aSGGruGB
— The Recount (@therecount) August 10, 2022
Trump in 2017: "If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?”
Trump in 2014: "If you are innocent, do not remain silent. You look guilty as hell!” https://t.co/KmXNsslCva
— Aaron Blake (@AaronBlake) August 10, 2022
Now that he himself is in the crosshairs, Trump’s tune has changed.
“Under the advice of my counsel and for all of the above reasons, 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. “I once asked, ‘If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?’ Now I know the answer to that question.”
Ooof. Major, major ooof.
Unfortunately, Trump is far from the only person to hold this backwards sentiment.
The Fifth Amendment ensures that people are not forced to incriminate themselves.
But you don’t take the Fifth if you didn’t do anything wrong. https://t.co/xIKupKNMSo
— Daniel Goldman (@danielsgoldman) August 10, 2022
Trump took the fifth amendment because he is guilty as fuck.
— Tony Posnanski (@tonyposnanski) August 10, 2022
Invoking the Fifth Amendment is an admission of guilt, Diaper Don.
— 🕊️💞Dannie D💞🕊️ (@DannieD01) August 10, 2022
"You see the mob takes the Fifth. If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?" — trump, who DID plead the fifth to Letitia James today.
— BrooklynDad_Defiant!☮️ (@mmpadellan) August 10, 2022
Let’s be very clear here, you would have to be out of your mind to not invoke the Fifth Amendment were you to be charged with a crime. Of the wrongful convictions we’ve discovered in our system so far, a whopping 25% can be attributed to false confessions. That’s because police and prosecutors are often more interested in securing a conviction than obtaining the truth. They often enter interrogations with their minds made up, and they have many techniques for getting people to confess—even when they’re innocent. Whether it be due to coercive plea deals that require people to admit guilt to get a lesser sentence, sleep deprivation, or outright lying to suspects, these officials can easily trick or scare people into saying too much.
And let’s not forget the pernicious misconduct being carried out by those same officials as well. Prosecutorial misconduct is rampant and rarely reprimanded. Misconduct by police, judges, and other actors in the justice system has also led to many other wrongful convictions. These people are not your friends, and you’d have to have a pretty serious lack of self-preservation to not know that.
Unfortunately, the myth that innocent people cooperate with police is a persistent one. And we see that false notion applied to many other circumstances too. When the Patriot Act was passed supporters claimed you had nothing to fear over the government’s new ability to spy on people so long as you were not a terrorist. And recently, after news came out that the IRS would hire 87,000 new enforcement agents, there were many who said you had nothing to fear so long as you paid your taxes.
All of those people, like Trump, were sorely mistaken.
This is just the latest example of Trump’s ignorance and arrogance when it comes to the justice system. Trump regularly decried the intelligence community’s persecution of him during his 2016 campaign, and rightfully so. But he then reauthorized FISA Courts during his short tenure, essentially expanding the federal government’s ability to run rogue in such matters in the first place. (He also refused to pardon Edward Snowden whose heroic efforts revealed the extent of these abusive programs in the first place and Julian Assange whose journalistic efforts proved Trump’s theory that he was targeted by them).
Trump has also said that people who sell drugs should get the death penalty and that their trials should be…expedited. “The penalties should be very, very severe. If you look at countries throughout the world, the ones that don’t have a drug problem are ones that institute a very quick trial death penalty sentence for drug dealers.” Yet he has spent no shortage of time complaining about the “unfair” treatment protestors at the January 6th raid on the US Capitol have faced. He even said the events have “proven conclusively we are a two-tiered system of justice.” Yet he wants to give that system more power (and did so as president) to kill people?
Make it make sense.
If you only uphold civil liberties and see the need for them when your own tail is in trouble but have an utter disregard for the lives of others who may be unfairly or unjustly caught up in this system, then frankly you deserve every ounce of wrath the state eventually pours out on your head. We all have something to fear from a powerful government with unchecked power, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool.
Civil liberties must be defended consistently and vigorously for all Americans—especially for people we may dislike or even whom we think are guilty. Justice requires due process and wise men and women should demand it at all times.