Prosecutors in D.C. election case are seeking a partial gag order for Trump
Updated September 15, 2023 at 9:39 PM ET
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal prosecutors are seeking an order that would prevent Donald Trump from making "inflammatory" and "intimidating" comments about witnesses, lawyers and other people involved in the criminal case charging the former president with scheming to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Special counsel Jack Smith's team said in a motion filed Friday that such a "narrow, well-defined" order was necessary to preserve the integrity of the case and to avoid prejudicing potential jurors.
Prosecutors had foreshadowed for weeks their concerns about Trump's verbal attacks, but Friday's request marks the first time they have proposed formal action to rein in speech that they say risks tainting the case and causing court workers and witnesses to live in fear of being targeted. The motion lays out what prosecutors say is a pattern of "false and inflammatory" statements about the case as well as comments meant to intimidate or harass people he believes are potential witnesses against him.
"Since the grand jury returned an indictment in this case, the defendant has repeatedly and widely disseminated public statements attacking the citizens of the District of Columbia, the Court, prosecutors, and prospective witnesses," prosecutors wrote. "Through his statements, the defendant threatens to undermine the integrity of these proceedings and prejudice the jury pool."
They said Trump's rhetoric has already had an impact, noting how jurors in the trial of a man convicted of participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol recently sent a note conveying concern that he might have information about their identity.
If the order is granted, Trump would be forced to dramatically limit the type of comments he makes about the case even as he seeks to turn his criminal woes — the Washington prosecution is one of four that he currently faces — to his political advantage while running to reclaim the White House in 2024. Still, it was not immediately clear what sanctions Trump could face if he fails to curb his speech or how the judge, Tanya Chutkan, might enforce even a limited gag order.
Trump showed no signs of toning down his words, complaining about the motion on Truth Social shortly after it was filed and repeating his claim that the FBI and Justice Department had been "weaponized." He repeated his familiar refrains that President Joe Biden was "crooked" and that Smith was "deranged."
"They Leak, Lie, & Sue, & they won't allow me to SPEAK," Trump wrote.
Later Friday, in a speech at the Concerned Women for America's Leadership Summit dinner in Washington, Trump said Smith "wants to take away my rights under the First Amendment" and "my right to speaking freely and openly."
"They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you," he said.
Trump's lawyers also oppose the request, prosecutors wrote in their motion, and a Trump spokesperson said in a statement that prosecutors were "corruptly and cynically continuing to attempt to deprive President Trump of his First Amendment rights.
"This is nothing more than blatant election interference because President Trump is by far the leading candidate in this race. The American people — the voters — see right through this un-Constitutional charade and will send President Trump back to the White House," the spokesperson said.
Beyond the narrow gag order, prosecutors also asked for an order that would prevent the Trump team from contacting District of Columbia residents to conduct polling, jury studies and focus groups without the judge's permission.
The efforts to weaken faith in the court system, the prosecutors wrote, mirror his attacks on the 2020 election, which he falsely claimed that he had won.
"The defendant is now attempting to do the same thing in this criminal case — to undermine confidence in the criminal justice system and prejudice the jury pool through disparaging and inflammatory attacks on the citizens of this District, the Court, prosecutors, and prospective witnesses," they wrote.
Among the statements cited by prosecutors in their motion is a a post on his Truth Social platform days after the indictment in which Trump wrote, in all capital letters, "If you go after me, I'm coming after you!" He has also repeatedly alleged on social media that the case against him is "rigged" and that he cannot receive a fair trial.
And he has attacked in personal terms the prosecutors bringing the case — calling Smith "deranged" and his team "thugs" — as well as the Chutkan, the judge presiding over the case.
The issue surfaced last week with the disclosure by the Justice Department that it sought to file a motion related to "daily" public statements by Trump that it said it feared would taint the jury pool. Chutkan on Friday granted permission to prosecutors to file a redacted motion publicly, with names and identifying information of individuals who say they've been harassed as a result of Trump's attacks blacked out.
Also Friday, Smith's team pushed back against the Trump team request to have Chutkan recuse herself from the case. Defense lawyers had cited prior comments from Chutkan that they say cast doubt on her ability to be fair, but prosecutors responded that there was no valid basis for her to step aside.
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