Latest Global News | Skeptical judges grill Trump lawyers and prosecutors on gag order in election interference case

WASHINGTON — Lawyers for Donald Trump and the Justice Department squared off Monday in a federal appeals court, where the former president’s lawyers are argued before a panel of skeptical judges that his constitutional rights have been violated by a gag order barring him from disparaging witnesses and prosecutors in the election interference case.

The judges did not immediately issue a decision, but questioned Trump’s lawyer on his contention that his speech can’t be curtailed at all and grilled the government’s attorney over provisions in the gag order that bar Trump from criticizing special counsel Jack Smith and his staff and high-profile possible witnesses in the case.

The two sides began presenting arguments in Washington before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, shortly after 9:30 a.m. ET, with Smith, who made the decision to charge Trump, sitting in the front row. The hearing was expected to last about an hour, but went on for more than twice as long as the judges peppered both sides with questions.

Trump attorney D. John Sauer argued that leaving the gag order in place would set a “terrible precedent” on “restrictions against core political speech.”

The judges — two nominated by former President Barack Obama, one by President Joe Biden — issued an order this month pausing the gag order until they could hear arguments in the appeal. Pressed by one about prosecutors’ argument that Trump’s public comments about witnesses and officials have led to individuals being “threatened and harassed,” Sauer said, “That’s all based on evidence that’s three years old.” He said Trump has commented on the case “incessantly” and there’s no evidence that anyone in the election interference case has been threatened.

Asked if there was any need to balance Trump’s political speech with concerns over threats, Sauer said his client should be entitled to “absolute freedom” to speak his mind.

The judges seemed skeptical of that argument, but also had questions for Smith’s office about the scope of the gag order, including how it protects Smith and his team. Smith’s attorney Cecil VanDevender told the judges that his office has “been subject to multiple threats” and “intimidating communication” after Trump issued “inflammatory posts” about the special counsel. One of the judges said Smith likely has “thick enough skin” to not be intimidated by such posts.

The same judge also questioned the gag order’s protection of criticism of potential witnesses like retired Gen. Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has been highly critical of Trump. She noted that Trump’s post about Milley came a day after he had blasted the former president in an interview. When the judges said they were skeptical that Trump’s posts would affect Milley’s testimony, VanDevender said they could have an effect on other witnesses who are testifying.

Trump has contended that as a presidential candidate, his speech should not be impeded in any way.

“The Gag Order appoints an unelected federal judge to censor what the leading candidate for President of the United States may say to all Americans,” Trump said in a statement Friday. “No court has ever upheld a gag order on core political speech at the height of a campaign,” he added, calling for the ruling to be “speedily reversed.”

Prosecutors from Smith’s office have argued the order is necessary for a fair trial, and that Trump’s social media posts and public comments about prospective witnesses and lawyers in the case led to risks of harassment and witness intimidation.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the case, agreed with prosecutors in an order last month.

“Undisputed testimony cited by the government demonstrates that when Defendant has publicly attacked individuals, including on matters related to this case, those individuals are consequently threatened and harassed,” Chutkan wrote in an Oct. 17 ruling that cited Trump’s comments about how some people involved in the case “are liars, or ‘thugs,’ or deserve death.”

“The court finds that such statements pose a significant and immediate risk that (1) witnesses will be intimidated or otherwise unduly influenced by the prospect of being themselves targeted for harassment or threats; and (2) attorneys, public servants, and other court staff will themselves become targets for threats and harassment,” the judge wrote.

Her gag order prohibited Trump “from making any public statements, or directing others to make any public statements” that target likely witnesses and the substance of their testimony, as well as the special counsel, his staff and employees of the court.

But it also made some exceptions by explicitly allowing Trump to continue criticizing the Biden administration and the Department of Justice in connection with the case, to argue that the case against him is politically motivated, and to assert his innocence. Chutkan also said she would not prohibit “statements criticizing the campaign platforms or policies of Defendant’s current political rivals, such as former Vice President Pence,” a then-presidential candidate who’s likely to be called as a witness for the prosecution when the case goes to trial in March.

Trump’s attorneys appealed the order, arguing that Chutkan was acting as “a barrier between the leading candidate for President, President Donald J. Trump, and every American across the country,” and that the court has “no business inserting itself into the Presidential election.”

“President Trump’s speech about this case is quintessential campaign speech,” and the “First Amendment does not permit the district court to micromanage President Trump’s core political speech,” his lawyers argued.

Prosecutors countered that Trump was seeking special treatment and urged the appeals court not to give it to him.

In their filing, government attorneys said Trump maintains “that it is not enough for him to be able to defend himself in court, publicly profess his innocence, criticize the presiding judge, characterize the prosecution as politically motivated, and criticize the platforms and policies of his political opponents. He must also be allowed to engage in a concerted campaign of targeting witnesses and public servants like court staff and career prosecutors, and even their families, with inflammatory language likely to result in harassment, intimidation, and threats.”

“No other criminal defendant or defense attorney could credibly make such a claim, and the Court should decline the defendant’s request to fashion a special rule solely for him,” they added.

This is not Trump’s first time being hit with a gag order, nor is it the first time he’s appealed one.

The New York judge presiding over Trump’s ongoing $250 million civil fraud trial imposed a gag order last month after Trump smeared the judge’s law clerk in a social media post. After an appeal, a state court temporarily lifted the gag order until the matter can be considered by a full panel of judges later this month.

Daniel Barnes reported from Washington and Dareh Gregorian from New York.