Federal Judge Imposes Limited Gag Order on Former President Trump in Election Case

The federal judge overseeing the 2020 election subversion case against former President Donald Trump imposed a limited gag order Monday, which would bar him from making statements that target possible witnesses, prosecutors, and the judge’s staff.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan’s order is a milestone moment in the federal case that accuses the former president of illegally conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss to now-President Joe Biden, a Democrat.

Jack Smith, the special counsel, had raised an alarm about a barrage of statements disparaging prosecutors, prospective witnesses, and the judge. Prosecutors said the comments risked undermining the public’s confidence in the court system and caused people who might be chosen as jurors or witnesses for trial to feel intimidated and harassed. 

Chutkan said there would not be restrictions on general statements criticizing the Justice Department or statements by Trump that he believes the case is politically motivated.

According to the judge, Trump can’t mount a “smear campaign” against court personnel and prosecutors.

“No other criminal defendant would be allowed to do so, and I’m not going to allow it in this case,” said Chutkan.

Trump’s attorneys fiercely oppose any gag order, saying it would constitutionally hinder his political speech. A Trump spokesman didn’t immediately comment on the judge’s ruling.

Smith’s team accused Trump of using online attacks to taint the jury pool

When seeking a gag order, Smith’s team accused the 2024 Republican presidential front-runner of using attacks online to try to taint the jury pool.

Trump’s lawyer, John Lauro, accused prosecutors of “seeking to censor a political candidate in the middle of the campaign.” However, the judge shot back that the former president “does not have a right to say and do exactly as he pleases.”

“You keep talking about censorship like the defendant has unfettered First Amendment rights. He doesn’t,” said Chutkan.

“We’re not talking about censorship here. We’re talking restrictions to ensure there is a fair administration of justice on this case.”

President Barack Obama appointed Chutkan and repeatedly warned Trump’s lawyer to keep politics out of the courtroom and cut off his attorney when he suggested the case was politically motivated.

Monday, prosecutor Molly Gaston told the judge Trump’s lawyers were arguing their client is “above the law” and not subject to the same rules as other defendants. Gaston said that Trump is aware his posts “motivate people to threaten others” and argued those could pollute the jury pool and possibly chill witnesses.

“We have no interest in stopping the defendant from running for office or defending his reputation,” said Gaston.

Chutkan also read statements aloud that Trump has made about her and derided her as a “radical Obama hack.” Although the judge said she was “less concerned” about Trump’s statements about her, she said his free speech doesn’t extend to language that knowingly invites harassment and threats of “people who are simply doing their jobs.”

The gag order proposal emphasized the unprecedented complexities of prosecuting the Republican presidential primary front-runner. Trump has made the attacks key to his campaign. 

It has presented a test for Chutkan, who must balance the need to protect the case’s integrity with the right to defend himself publicly.

The gag order marked the beginning of what could be an extraordinary fight over what limits can be placed on the defendant’s speech, who is also running for America’s highest public office. According to legal experts, any gag order from Chutkan is likely to be challenged on appeal and could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.