Washington — The federal judge overseeing the case against former President Donald Trump related to the 2020 election agreed Monday to impose some limitations on what he can say publicly about the case, restricting the former president and his attorneys from making inflammatory statements targeting special counsel Jack Smith, his staff, court personnel, and possible witnesses who may testify in the proceedings.
The decision from U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan followed a lengthy hearing in federal court in Washington, D.C., regarding a request from Smith and his team to limit what Trump can say about the case brought against him by the Justice Department.
Chutkan issued a split ruling, granting the Justice Department's requests for restrictions on the specific statements by the former president that she said could jeopardize the trial.
"This is not about whether I like the language Mr. Trump uses. This is about language that presents a danger to the administration of justice," the judge said.
Trump posted on Truth Social that he will be appealing.
She denied Smith's request to prohibit the president from making statements about the District of Columbia, where a trial set for March 2024 is scheduled to be held, or criticizing the Biden administration or the Justice Department. Trump has accused the special counsel of pursuing a politically motivated prosecution designed to harm his campaign against President Biden in the 2024 presidential race.
"First Amendment protections yield to the administration of justice and the protection of witnesses," Chutkan said Monday.
In a statement, a Trump spokesperson called the decision an "absolute abomination and another partisan knife stuck in the heart of our Democracy."
"President Trump will continue to fight for our Constitution, the American people's right to support him, and to keep our country free of the chains of weaponized and targeted law enforcement," the spokesperson said.
During the at-times contentious court hearing on Monday where allegations of threats and political censorship abounded, attorneys and Chutkan herself grappled with the potential consequences of either taking action to limit Trump's public statements or keeping the current conditions of his pretrial release in place.
Prosecutors asked Chutkan last month to impose what they described as a "narrowly tailored" order to prevent the former president from making "extrajudicial statements that present a serious and substantial danger of materially prejudicing this case." Citing numerous tweets and other public statements, the special counsel argued that Trump has an "established practice" of targeting those who challenge him, which they said could damage the fair trial process.
Trump, they alleged Monday, was trying the case in the court of public opinion.
His attorneys opposed the request, claiming any court order would restrict his right to free speech and hinder his ability to campaign because the criminal prosecution and the issues it raises are intertwined with the political campaign. The move, the defense contended, was an attempt to silence the former president and Trump himself characterized the proposition as politically motivated.
"Mr. Trump is a criminal defendant. He is facing four felony charges. He is under the custody of the criminal justice system," Chutkan said at the outset, "He does not have the right to say and do exactly as he pleases." Conventional conditions of release prevent criminal defendants from threatening or persuading potential witnesses.
Still, the judge worked through the prosecution's proposed gag order, parsing the definitions of words like "disparaging" and "inflammatory" and raising issues with the breadth of what Smith's team had asked for.
"We have no interest in preventing the defendant from running for office or defending his reputation," prosecutor Molly Gaston said.
"[Trump] is entitled to say that the Department of Justice is acting unlawfully," defense attorney John Lauro said. "He is entitled to even say things that are insulting to these prosecutors," claiming Trump has so far abided by the conditions of release that Chutkan enacted earlier this year. The judge laughed in response and said she would "take issue" with that contention.
"I understand that you have a message that you want to get out," Chutkan said to Lauro, "I do not need to hear any campaign rhetoric in my court," adding later, "Politics stops at this courthouse door." Lauro said the political and legal worlds were too entwined in the case to avoid such language.
Chutkan — who at times sparred with the president's defense attorney when the discussion veered into interruptions and political or tangential topics — examined in the more than 2-hour hearing the five topics that she said could be subject to the proposed gag order: statements about Washington, D.C., and the jury pool; criticisms of the Biden administration and the Justice Department; discussions about Smith and his team; statements targeting the court and its staff; and comments about witnesses in the case.
She read some of Trump's comments prosecutors highlighted in their motion out loud in court, from the former president's calling the nation's capital a rat-infested "national embarrassment" to his labeling Smith as "deranged" and Mr. Biden as "corrupt." Chutkan even read from the bench some of Trump's criticism of her — as recently as Sunday he called her a "highly partisan Obama-appointed Judge" on social media — and highlighted a past instance in a New York civil case against the former president in which he posted information about a courthouse staffer and was subsequently barred from doing so again.
Defense attorney John Lauro consistently pushed Chutkan to delay the proceedings until after the 2024 presidential election and said all of the statements flagged by prosecutors were completely protected by the First Amendment and Trump's right to campaign freely.
"This trial will not yield to the election cycle and we will not revisit the trial date," Chutkan said.
Chutkan appeared to take the greatest issue with any comments that could potentially intimidate witnesses or promote acts of violence, but Lauro pushed back, arguing the "reality of the First Amendment" frees Trump from any liability tied to the actions of others.
Her ruling reflected that concern and she explained that her goal was to restrict any witness intimidation. Trump's presidential candidacy, Chutkan argued, did not give him "carte blanche" to vilify prosecutors and others involved in the case. Any other defendant, she contended, would be limited as such.
A violation of the new order by any of the parties involved in the case, the judge warned, would result in unspecified sanctions.
About an hour before Chutkan issued her split ruling, the former president's campaign sent out a fundraising email calling the proposed gag order "an attempt to gag the American people."
"Today, I will not be attending the hearing," the Trump email said Monday. "I refuse to dignify this attempt to STRIP ME of my First Amendment rights."
The former president was indicted by a federal grand jury on four charges including conspiracy and obstructing Congress' work related to his alleged attempts to reverse the 2020 election results and has pleaded not guilty.
The trial is currently set for March 2024, as the presidential primary elections begin.
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