An appeals court in Washington, D.C. pressed prosecutors from the special counsel’s office and Donald Trump’s lawyers on the viability of a limited gag order in Trump’s federal election meddling case at a hearing Monday.
The limited restraining order, issued by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan but currently on appeal, prohibits Trump from making or republishing statements “publicly directed” at special counsel Jack Smith and his staff, as well as the judge’s staff and staff to other DC district court clerks.
The justices did not immediately rule on whether the limited gag order should be reinstated.
In August, Trump pleaded not guilty to charges of engaging in a “criminal scheme” to overturn the results of the 2020 election by enlisting a list of so-called “bogus voters” using the Justice Department to conduct “fictitious election investigations.” crimes,” trying to get the vice president to “change the results of the election” and promoting false claims of stolen elections during the January 6 riots, all in an attempt to undermine democracy and stay in power.
The former president has denied any wrongdoing and denounced the allegations as “persecution of a political opponent”.
Chutkan issued the limited gag order last month after Trump made comments and online posts that included calling Smith “crazy” and a “thug.”
At Monday’s hearing, Trump’s lawyer John Sauer described the limited order against Trump as “unprecedented” and one that sets a “terrible precedent for future restrictions on major political speech.”
“It’s not the government’s role to dictate what is — what topics are appropriate or unnecessary to discuss in the context of a political campaign,” Sauer said. “A gag order does both.”
The panel asked Sauer if his position would have been different if the gag order had been implemented against Trump a year ago — seeking clarity on whether the proximity to the 2024 presidential election would affect their position on the constitutionality of the gag order.
Sauer said he would still consider the order unconstitutional and that what Trump has engaged in with his criticism of Smith and the case qualifies as protected political speech.
A judge then asked if the defense’s position was that Trump was “above the law,” to which Sauer replied that they did not dispute that.
The judge then pressed Sauer on whether he thought courts, at any time, could claim a sufficient interest in protecting the integrity of the process to enforce such a gag order — and presented him with several cases of Supreme Court precedent.
However, Sauer argues that the current conditions present a completely unique situation.
Sauer also argued that for a restraining order to be entered, the threat must be “imminent” and not merely speculative — which Judge Bradley Garcia pointed out is contrary to precedent.
Special Counsel Cecil VanDevender’s appellate attorney argued that the restrictions on making direct attacks on Smith were supported by Supreme Court precedent — but the justices challenged him to explain why it did not violate Trump’s First Amendment rights, raising a hypothetical scenario in which Trump is at the debate stage, where his opponents can raise any specific questions about the charges he faces and ask whether he should be barred from answering them.
The judge asked VanDevender if Trump would have to say “Ms. Mannery” while everyone on stage took aim at him.
Van Devender said the existing order would allow Trump to say the indictment was politically motivated and call the Justice Department corrupt, but that Trump should be barred from even mentioning the names of prosecutors in the case — a position that has led to aggressive pushback from the judges as they presented him with several hypothetical scenarios that could test the gag order.
One judge asked if Trump could respond to an appearance on 60 Minutes by Bill Barr, who attacked him on Jan. 6 by saying everything Barr said was false.
Van Devender suggested that Trump could say that was false, but could not use other “inflammatory language” or attack Barr’s credibility directly in a way that would sway jurors.
Another judge set it by calling someone a “slimy liar” provocatively.
“I think it’s inflammatory,” VanDevender responded — adding that while Trump can say he “disagrees” with a witness’ testimony related to Jan. 6, he can’t say they “lied.”
“We certainly want to make sure that the criminal process and its integrity and truth-finding function is protected,” a judge said of the process by which the panel will make its decision.