Trump gag order appeal faces skeptical reception in US court

By Mike Scarcella

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. appeals court judges on Monday signaled skepticism toward Donald Trump’s bid to overturn a gag order imposed on the former president in a federal criminal case in which he is accused of illegally trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat.

As Trump lawyer D. John Sauer argued that the order violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free speech rights, judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia asked whether Trump’s charged rhetoric would threaten the integrity of his upcoming trial.

“I don’t hear you giving any weight at all to the interests in a fair trial,” Judge Cornelia Pillard told Sauer.

Pillard is one of three judges who heard Trump’s appeal of the gag order imposed by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the case, barring him and his lawyers from publicly criticizing prosecutors, court staff and potential witnesses.

Chutkan ruled that such statements could influence witnesses and lead to threats against people involved in the case.

“The order is unprecedented, and it sets a terrible precedent on future restrictions on core political speech,” Sauer said during the two-hour hearing.

Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 U.S. election, has assailed officials involved in the welter of criminal and civil cases he faces. He has called U.S. Special Counsel Jack Smith, who brought the federal election-related charges, a “deranged lunatic” and a “thug,” among other insults.

The gag order has been suspended during Trump’s appeal. Trump has pleaded not guilty in the case, as well as all three other criminal cases.

The judges asked Justice Department lawyer Cecil VanDevender whether the order was written too broadly.

“We have to use a careful scalpel here,” said Judge Patricia Millett, a Democratic judicial appointee like the other two on the panel.

VanDevender said the order still allows Trump to make broad arguments about the integrity of the case.

“He can say, ‘This is a politically motivated prosecution brought by my political opponent,’ ‘The Department of Justice is corrupt, and, ‘I will be vindicated at trial,’ – all of that stuff,” VanDevender said.

The judges did not indicate when they will rule.


A similar restriction in a separate civil business fraud case in New York was temporarily lifted by a state appeals court judge last week. Trump promptly resumed his attacks on a court clerk involved in the case.

In social media posts and presidential campaign appearances, Trump has said court officials and others involved in his legal woes are politically biased, leading to fears that they could face physical threats from his supporters.

The Washington case is set to go to trial in March, during what night be the height of the Republican nominating contest.

Trump is charged with conspiring to interfere with the official tally of the 2020 presidential race, which he lost to Biden. Trump has accused Biden’s administration of weaponizing the U.S. legal system against him.

The indictment accuses Trump and his allies of promoting false claims the election was rigged, pressuring officials to alter the results and assembling fake slates of electors to try to wrest electoral votes from Biden.

Trump has also pleaded not guilty in three other criminal cases, including a Georgia case that also charges him with unlawfully conspiring to overturn the election.

(Reporting by Mike Scarcella; writing by Andy Sullivan; editing by Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis)