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Trump barred from publicly targeting Jack Smith, potential witnesses in DC elections case

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Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, October 9, 2023.
Brian Snyder | Reuters

A federal judge Monday imposed a partial gag order on Donald Trump in his criminal election interference case in Washington, D.C., placing limits on the former president’s speech as he campaigns for the Oval Office for the third time.

Trump and other parties in the case are barred from making any public statements targeting special counsel Jack Smith and his staff, as well as court personnel, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said at a court hearing.

Trump is also prohibited from posting or sharing statements about the role and testimony of potential witnesses in the case. Trump stands accused of trying to overturn his 2020 election loss with the aid of Republican lawmakers.

While Trump will still be allowed to criticize potential witnesses in vague terms, he cannot make statements about their involvement in the case, Chutkan said. She pointed to former Vice President Mike Pence, who is running against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, as an example.

Trump vowed to appeal the ruling “very quickly.”

“I’ll be the only politician in our history where I won’t be allowed to criticize people,” he said at a campaign event in Iowa later Monday.

“They put a gag order on me, and I’m not supposed to be talking about things that bad people do,” he said.

Trump’s campaign pounced on the ruling as a prime fundraising opportunity.

“The Biden administration can try and gag me, but they can never gag the American people!” Trump said in email to supporters seeking campaign contributions.

A Trump campaign spokesman separately called Chutkan’s decision “an absolute abomination,” claiming in a statement that President Joe Biden “was granted the right to muzzle his political opponent.”

All of those statements appeared to comply with the terms of the gag order as Chutkan explained it from the bench.

The ruling was the second time this month that Trump had been issued a partial gag order. A judge presiding over his civil trial in Manhattan on charges of business fraud barred the parties from making any public statements about the judge’s staff. That order came after Trump sent a social media post attacking the judge’s law clerk.

Chutkan’s ruling granted only some of the restrictions that had been requested by Smith, who argued that Trump’s social media statements attacking various parties in the case could prejudice the proceedings.

She denied the special counsel’s bid to restrict Trump’s statements about the citizens of D.C. who are eligible to be jurors in the trial.

She also declined to restrict general statements criticizing the government, including the Department of Justice or the Biden administration itself.

Chutkan delivered the ruling at the end of the hearing, and said a more detailed written order would follow shortly.

Throughout the hearing, Chuktan had expressed concern about the scope of Smith’s proposed order.

At one point, Chutkan asked prosecutor Molly Gaston to define which of Trump’s statements about the case would qualify as “disparaging,” and therefore be barred under the gag order as written. She also asked how such an order could be enforced against a former president.

Chutkan clashed repeatedly with Trump defense lawyer John Lauro, who argued that the effort to limit his client’s out-of-court statements would violate Trump’s First Amendment rights.

Lauro also argued that a gag order would adversely impact Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign. He accused the Justice Department under Biden of censoring Trump, and claimed, without evidence, that the case against Trump was inextricably linked to Trump’s effort to reclaim the White House from Biden.

“I do not need to hear any campaign rhetoric in my court,” Chutkan chided Lauro at one point.

Trump was not present at the hearing.

Smith’s office said the gag order is aimed at preventing potential jurors in the case from being prejudiced by outside interference before a trial gets underway.

Trump himself has repeatedly railed against the prosecutors’ request, accusing them of trying to “silence” him.

“Nothing like this has ever happened in our Country before,” Trump said Sunday night in a social media post that also attacked Chutkan as a “highly partisan Obama appointed Judge.”

During the hearing itself, Trump posted, “The TRUMP GAG ORDER that the CORRUPT Biden Administration is trying to obtain is totally Unconstitutional!”

Smith asked for a partial gag order on Trump last month, arguing that his social media tirades against the case threatened to undermine its integrity and taint the jury pool.

Smith’s Sept. 15 court filing cited numerous posts from Trump’s Truth Social account targeting Chutkan, the prosecutors, the court, the citizens who comprise the D.C. jury pool and potential witnesses in the case.

Trump’s posts are intended “to undermine confidence in the criminal justice system and prejudice the jury pool through disparaging and inflammatory attacks,” Smith contended.

Smith noted that his criminal indictment against Trump accuses him of using the same tactic as part of his efforts to overturn his loss to Biden in the 2020 election.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to the four-count indictment, one of four separate criminal cases against him as he seeks the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

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