Judge temporarily lifts narrow gag order on Trump in 2020 election interference case

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The federal judge overseeing Donald Trump’s 2020 election interference case in Washington agreed Friday to temporarily lift her narrow gag order. The ruling gives Trump’s lawyers time to prove why the former president’s comments should not be restricted as the case heads toward trial.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said the gag order would remain on hold — for now — while she considers Trump’s bid to speak freely about the case as he challenges the restrictions in higher courts.

The gag order Chutkan issued Monday barred him from making public statements targeting prosecutors, court staff and potential witnesses. It’s the most serious restriction a court has placed on Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, which has become a centerpiece of his grievance-filled campaign to return to the White House.

Trump’s lawyers, who quickly appealed the ruling to the D.C. Circuit Court, wrote in court papers Friday that the gag order should be lifted while his legal challenges play out, calling the restrictions “egregious and intolerable.” They argued neither the judge nor prosecutors have “come close” to justifying the order, adding that the former president “has not unlawfully threatened or harassed anyone.”

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“By restricting President Trump’s speech, the Gag Order eviscerates the rights of his audiences, including hundreds of millions of American citizens who the Court now forbids from listening to President Trump’s thoughts on important issues,” the defense wrote.

Chutkan ordered special counsel Jack Smith’s team to file by Wednesday any opposition to Trump’s bid for a longer pause on the gag order pending appeal.

In her Monday ruling, Chutkan said Trump is allowed to criticize the Justice Department generally and assert his claims of innocence and his claims that the case is politically motivated. But she said his statements smearing prosecutors and likely witnesses have crossed a line and could spur his supporters to threaten or harass his targets.

At rallies and in social media posts, Trump has sought to vilify Smith and others, casting himself as the victim of a politicized justice system working to deny him another term.

Trump has decried the order as unconstitutional, and has used it to amplify his claims that he is being politically persecuted. The former president has denied any wrongdoing in the case charging him with illegally scheming to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

It’s the second gag order imposed on Trump in the last month. The judge overseeing Trump’s civil fraud trial in New York earlier this month issued a more limited gag order prohibiting personal attacks against court personnel following a social media post from Trump that maligned the judge’s principal clerk.

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Trump was fined $5,000 on Friday after his disparaging post lingered on his campaign website for weeks after the judge ordered it deleted. Judge Arthur Engoron avoided holding Trump in contempt for now, but reserved the right to do so — and possibly even put the ex-president in jail — if he again violates the limited gag order.

Trump’s lawyers also filed court papers Friday in response to prosecutors’ request for steps to protect the identity of prospective jurors. Prosecutors have said they are concerned about what Trump might do with research on possible jurors, pointing to his “continued use of social media as a weapon of intimidation in court proceedings.”

Trump’s lawyers wrote in their filing that the former president has “no intention” of publicizing the names or other information about jurors. They added that “Trump expressly objects to any suggestion that the jury faces any risk of harm due to their participation in President Trump’s trial.”

“Such comments, if placed before the jury, would be enormously prejudicial and would warrant an immediate mistrial,” Trump’s legal team wrote.

Richer reported from Boston.

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