Judge issues partial gag order in Trump federal election interference case

WASHINGTON — The judge overseeing the federal election interference case on Monday issued a partial gag order forbidding former President Donald Trump from making statements about potential witnesses or disparaging comments about the prosecutors.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said she would not impose restrictions on Trump’s statements about Washington, D.C., and its residents, nor on statements criticizing the government or the Justice Department generally. But she imposed a restriction on all parties, including Trump, that banned them from making or reposting any statements publicly targeting the special counsel or his staff, as well as court staff members or personnel.

“Mr. Trump may still vigorously seek public support as a presidential candidate, debate policies and people related to that candidacy, criticize the current administration and assert his belief that this prosecution is politically motivated,” Chutkan said. “But those critical first amendment freedoms do not allow him to launch a pre-trial smear campaign against participating government staff, their families and foreseeable witnesses.”

“Mr. Trump can certainly claim he’s being unfairly prosecuted, but I cannot imagine any other criminal case in which a defendant is permitted to call the prosecutor ‘deranged’ or ‘a thug,’ and I will not permit it here simply because the defendant is running a political campaign,” Chutkan added. “His presidential candidacy does not give him carte blanche to vilify and implicitly encourage violence against public servants who are simply doing their job.”

She went on to say that Trump could make statements about one of his 2024 Republican rivals, former Vice President Mike Pence, but could not speak about his role in the case. Chutkan said Trump did not have a right to launch a smear campaign against witnesses, prosecutors and court staff members.

Speaking at a campaign rally in Iowa, Trump said he would appeal the order.

“I’ll be the only politician in history that runs with a gag order where I’m not allowed to criticize people. Can you imagine this?” he told the crowd.

“We’ll appeal it and we’ll see. But it’s so unconstitutional.”

Special counsel Jack Smith, who brought the federal election interference case against Trump in August, was seeking a narrow gag order against Trump to “protect the integrity of the trial and the jury pool.” Trump’s team, without evidence, has argued that the Biden administration is trying to silence his speech during the presidential campaign.

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Prosecutors and Trump’s defense attorney appeared before Chutkan at a hearing in Washington on Monday morning. Trump was not present. The trial is scheduled for March.

Chutkan laughed after Trump’s lawyer John Lauro argued that the current conditions are working, saying she disagreed before she went through some of Trump’s statements. Chutkan said that Trump “doesn’t” have unfettered First Amendment rights and that there’s “no question” that the court is entitled to impose restrictions to ensure the fair administration of justice.

Chutkan said she had concerns about the breadth of the proposed order presented by Smith’s office. But Molly Gaston of the special counsel’s office said Trump “can criticize President Biden to his heart’s content” because Biden had nothing to do with the case.

Trump posted on his Truth Social platform during the hearing, “The TRUMP GAG ORDER that the CORRUPT Biden Administration is trying to obtain is totally Unconstitutional!”

A Trump campaign spokesperson called the order “an absolute abomination and another partisan knife stuck in the heart of our Democracy by Crooked Joe Biden, who was granted the right to muzzle his political opponent, the leading candidate for the Presidency in 2024, and the most popular political leader in America, President Donald J. Trump. President Trump will continue to fight for our Constitution, the American people’s right to support him, and to keep our country free of the chains of weaponized and targeted law enforcement.”

Within hours, the Trump campaign also sent out a fundraising email claiming the order had been imposed “at the request of Joe Biden.”

Two notable people appeared at the courthouse Monday to watch the hearing: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a close Trump ally, and defense lawyer Stanley Woodward, who represents Walt Nauta, Trump’s valet and co-defendant in the separate classified documents case. Woodward appeared to be in court just as an observer but could be seen talking to Trump’s legal team during a break in the proceedings.

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During the break, Greene could be heard disputing that Trump would ever say some of the hypothetical statements Chutkan presented during arguments.

Trump, prosecutors said in a filing before the hearing, wants “special treatment, asserting that because he is a political candidate, he should have free rein to publicly intimidate witnesses and malign the Court, citizens of this District, and prosecutors.” But in this case, they wrote, he should be treated like any criminal defendant.

Trump’s team had argued that the gag order sought by prosecutors was politically motivated.

“At bottom, the Proposed Gag Order is nothing more than an obvious attempt by the Biden Administration to unlawfully silence its most prominent political opponent, who has now taken a commanding lead in the polls,” Trump’s lawyers wrote in a brief filed last month.

Trump’s team sought to delay the trial until 2026, and Smith’s team wanted jury selection in the case to begin this year, but Chutkan set a trial date for March 4, the day before Super Tuesday, when primary voters in several states cast their ballots.

Chutkan, who has received threats in connection with her oversight of the case, previously warned Trump about talking about the case in a way that could intimidate witnesses or affect the proceedings.

In a separate civil trial in New York, a judge ordered Trump to delete a disparaging post about a member of the judge’s staff.

“Personal attacks on members of my court staff are unacceptable, inappropriate and I won’t tolerate it,” said Judge Arthur Engoron, who is overseeing the New York attorney general’s fraud lawsuit against Trump, his company and his two adult sons. “Consider this a gag order on all parties with respect to posting or publicly speaking about any member of my staff.”

Ryan J. Reilly

Ryan J. Reilly is a justice reporter for NBC News.

Daniel Barnes

Daniel Barnes reports for NBC News, based in Washington.

Annemarie Bonner, Jacob Taylor and Dareh Gregoriancontributed.