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Judge imposes partial gag order against Trump in election-interference case

Prosecutors are seeking a partial gag order against former President Donald Trump.
Alon Skuy
Getty Images
Prosecutors are seeking a partial gag order against former President Donald Trump.

Updated October 16, 2023 at 1:49 PM ET

The federal judge presiding over Donald Trump's election interference case imposed a partial gag order Monday against the former president, barring him and all other parties in the case from making statements targeting prosecutors and court personnel as well as inflammatory statements about likely witnesses.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan marked a partial victory for the Justice Department in its bid to impose additional restrictions on Trump's extra-judicial statements in the federal election interference case in Washington.

"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," Chutkan said as she announced her decision from the bench.

Trump's presidential candidacy, Chutkan said, "does not give him carte blanche" to threaten or vilify "public servants simply doing their job."

If Trump or anyone else violates these restrictions, Chutkan said she will consider sanctions "as necessary."

Trump's attorneys said they planned to appeal the ruling.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Trump called the order "an absolute abomination and another partisan knife stuck in the heart of our Democracy by Crooked Joe Biden."

Chutkan's decision came after a more than two-hour hearing that at times grew testy, particularly as Trump attorney John Lauro tried to fend off the partial gag order sought by special counsel Jack Smith's office.

Smith's team was asking the court for what prosecutors called a narrow gag order because Trump's comments, they said, threatened to intimidate witnesses and taint the jury pool.

At Monday's hearing, Lauro vigorously denied any need to place restrictions on the former president's public comments about the case, and said the effort to do so amounted to the Biden administration attempting to silence the president's chief political rival.

"The Biden administration is seeking to censor a political candidate in the middle of a campaign," Lauro said.

"Mr. Trump is allowed to say things like, 'This is a politically motivated prosecutions.' He's entitled to speak truth to oppression," he said. "The answer to oppression and tyranny is the ability of Americans to speak freely."

Lauro suggested the case be postponed until after the election, adding "if these prosecutors were really interested in justice, that's what would happen."

Chutkan interjected: "I understand you have a message you want to get out. I want to address the motion and the law. I don't need to hear any campaign rhetoric."

She also rejected Lauro's attempt to put the case on hold, telling him "this trial will not yield to the election cycle."

In its arguments, the government cited what it said were several troubling public statements Trump has made related to the case.

The day after his arraignment in August, for example, Trump posted on social media: "If you go after me, I'm coming after you." The judge previously has warned Trump's attorneys that any misbehavior could lead her to move up the trial date, now set for March 4, 2024, to limit further prejudice to potential jurors.

Since then, Trump has posted that the justice system is "rigged," that special counsel Smith is "deranged," that the judge is "a radical Obama hack" and that he can't get a fair trial in the District of Columbia. Trump has also verbally attacked possible witnesses such as his former vice president, Mike Pence, and his former attorney general, Bill Barr.

"The court does not have to tolerate the defendant intimidating witnesses and tainting the jury pool," Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Gaston said at Monday's hearing.

Trump, she said, is "able not to say these things, but he's using his campaign to make these statements with the intention of trying this case in the court of public opinion rather than this courtroom."

Trump already is operating under a sort of gag order in the ongoing civil fraud trial he faces in New York City. A judge there rebuked him after Trump made baseless accusations against the judge's law clerk and posted her photo online.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Ryan Lucas
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.