Judge bars Trump from ‘smear campaign’ against prosecutors, witnesses

By Andrew Goudsward

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A federal judge on Monday barred Donald Trump from verbally attacking U.S. prosecutors, court staff and potential witnesses involved in a criminal case that accuses him of trying to overturn his 2020 election loss.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, pointing to disparaging social media posts, said she would not allow the former U.S. president, who has pleaded not guilty, to “launch a pretrial smear campaign” against people involved in the case.

“No other criminal defendant would be allowed to do so, and I’m not going to allow it in this case,” Chutkan said as she issued the order.

Speaking at a campaign rally in Iowa on Monday, Trump called the judge’s order “unconstitutional” and vowed to appeal it.

“I’ll be the only politician in history that runs with a gag order where I’m not allowed to criticize people,” Trump told supporters.

The order bars Trump, frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and attorneys in the case from personally targeting Special Counsel Jack Smith, prosecutors working with him and court staff.

It also prevents Trump from discussing potential witnesses as relates to their testimony at trial.

Trump’s trial is due to begin in five months. He is charged with conspiring to interfere in the counting of votes and block the certification of the 2020 election, which he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

The ruling followed a two-hour hearing where the judge grilled a Trump lawyer about recent social media posts in which Trump referred to Smith as a “thug” and the city of Washington as a “filthy crime-ridden embarrassment” and suggested former top U.S. General Mark Milley committed an offense that would have once warranted death.

“This is not about whether I like the language Mr. Trump uses,” Chutkan said. “It’s about language that presents a danger to the administration of justice.”

Trump lawyer John Lauro opposed any request to rein in Trump’s statements, arguing that it would amount to censorship during a presidential campaign.

Trump has successfully used the many legal threats he faces to raise money for his campaign, and his political operation sought to capitalize on Monday’s hearing by arguing that the gag order request would silence his political movement.

Prosecutors sought a limited gag order that would bar certain statements from Trump during the case.

The judge said she would allow Trump to make critical statements about the U.S. Justice Department and that denounce the prosecution as politically motivated.

Lauro said Trump was responding to “oppression” from the Justice Department and “has a history of using forceful language and creative language to draw attention to the problems of this country.”

Molly Gaston, a prosecutor working with Smith, said the order was necessary to prevent Trump from trying the case “in the court of public opinion.”

(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward; Additional reporting by Nathan Layne. Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)