Trump’s lawyer argued that the order violated free speech while the judges said his rhetoric could threaten the integrity of his upcoming trial.
US appeals court judges cast doubt on 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 attempting to reverse the his defeat in the 2020 election.
It prohibits Trump from publicly disparaging any prosecutors, potential witnesses or court employees involved in the case.
Trump’s lawyer D John Sauer argued Monday that the order violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech as judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia questioned whether the alleged rhetoric by Trump could threaten the integrity of his upcoming trial.
“I have not heard you give any weight to the interests of a fair trial,” Judge Cornelia Pillard told Sauer.
Pillard was one of three judges who heard Trump’s appeal of the gag order imposed by US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over the case.
Chutkan ruled that public statements by Trump or his lawyers criticizing prosecutors, court staff and potential witnesses could influence witnesses and lead to threats against people involved in the case.
But Chutkan allowed Trump to “criticize the Justice Department, President Biden and himself. He also allowed him to maintain that the prosecution itself was a partisan retaliation against him,” The New York Times reported.
“The order is unprecedented, and it sets a terrible precedent for future restrictions on mainstream political speech,” Sauer said during the two-hour hearing.
Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 election, has attacked officials involved in various criminal and civil cases he is facing. He called US Special Counsel Jack Smith, who brought federal cases related to the election, a “deranged lunatic” and a “thug”.
Trump’s comments about prosecutors and witnesses pitted his right to free speech against the need for a fair trial next year.
The gag order was suspended during Trump’s appeal. Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charge as well as to all three other criminal charges.
The justices asked Justice Department attorney Cecil VanDevender whether the order was written too broadly.
“We have to use a very careful scalpel here,” said Judge Patricia Millett, a Democratic judicial appointee like two others on the panel.
VanDevender said the order still allows Trump to make several arguments about the integrity of the case.
“He can say, ‘This is a political prosecution instigated by my political opponent,’ ‘The Justice Department is corrupt,’ and ‘I will be vindicated at trial,’ — all those things,” VanDevender said.
The judges did not indicate when they will rule.