On Monday, a federal judge scrutinized lawyers representing Donald Trump regarding the former president’s social media criticisms of individuals involved in a criminal case against him related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The judge considered whether to issue a partial gag order in the case.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan repeatedly probed Trump’s attorney, John Lauro, about social media posts in which Trump referred to Special Jack Smith as a “thug” and Washington as a “filthy crime-ridden embarrassment.”
Chutkan emphasized that Trump, as a criminal defendant, doesn’t have an unrestricted right to say and do as he pleases. In response, Lauro argued that Trump, who has pleaded not guilty, was making criticisms about what he sees as a politically motivated prosecution and responding to “oppression” from the U.S. Justice Department. Lauro contended that Trump has a history of using forceful language to draw attention to the country’s issues.
These exchanges occurred as U.S. prosecutors sought a court order to limit Trump’s public statements about individuals involved in the case. The case brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith is one of four criminal cases filed against the former president this year by federal and state prosecutors. Trump is currently the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
Prosecutor Molly Gaston, who is working with Special Counsel Jack Smith, argued that the order was necessary to prevent Trump from attempting to litigate the case in the court of public opinion. Gaston explained that the prosecution has no intention of preventing the defendant from running for office or defending his reputation, and the proposed order does not restrict that. The prosecutors contend that Trump’s “inflammatory public statements,” including a barrage of social media attacks, undermine public confidence in the legal system and may influence potential jurors.
Although Trump did not attend Monday’s hearing, he has opposed the request, characterizing it as an effort to curtail his freedom of speech as he campaigns for the presidency. Lauro argued that these prosecutors aim to restrict President Trump’s commentary on current issues, and he claimed that the case is closely tied to campaign matters.
While Chutkan challenged some of Lauro’s assertions, she also questioned whether the prosecution’s request was overly broad. At one point, she read one of Trump’s social media posts in which he referred to Washington, where the trial is set to take place, as a “filthy crime-ridden embarrassment.” The judge remarked that there was little doubt the statement was “disparaging.”
This request for a partial gag order has emerged as an early point of contention, approximately five months before Trump’s scheduled trial on charges of conspiring to interfere with vote counting and obstruct the certification of the 2020 election, which he lost to Biden.
Trump has pleaded not guilty and accused the prosecutors of interfering with his campaign.
In a civil fraud trial presided over by a New York judge, a gag order was issued against Trump earlier this month, preventing him from commenting on court personnel after he criticized the judge’s clerk on social media.
In his filing, Special Counsel Smith cited Trump’s criticism on his Truth Social platform of potential witnesses, including former Vice President and 2024 presidential rival Mike Pence, who Trump accused of going to the “Dark Side,” and former top U.S. general Mark Milley, who Trump accused of colluding with China in an act that he claimed would have previously warranted the death penalty.
Trump’s legal team countered that there was no evidence that Trump’s posts had a detrimental effect on the case, and they accused the prosecutors of attempting to impose sweeping limitations on Trump’s criticism of the government.