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Judge imposes a partial gag order on Trump in election interference case

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

News today in former President Trump's federal election interference case. The judge presiding over the case in Washington, D.C., imposed a limited gag order that bars Trump from making public statements targeting the prosecutors, the court's staff and, likely, witnesses. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas was at the courthouse today and joins us now. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: So this seems like a victory for the government. Is it?

LUCAS: Well, the government didn't get everything that it wanted, but it certainly got a fair chunk of it. So special counsel Jack Smith's team was asking the court for a limited gag order on Trump. Smith's team said that this was necessary because Trump has made public comments, inflammatory ones, about all sorts of things related to this case. He's called the judge a radical Obama hack. He's called special counsel Jack Smith deranged. He's gone after potential witnesses, like former Vice President Mike Pence, former Attorney General Bill Barr. And more generally, he said that the justice system is rigged and that he can't get a fair trial.

Now, in court today, assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Gaston said those sorts of inflammatory public statements could intimidate witnesses. They could taint the jury pool. And she argued that Trump is saying these things in an effort to try this case in the court of public opinion instead of in the courtroom where it belongs. And she said that he shouldn't be allowed to do that.

CHANG: OK. And how did Trump's legal team push back on that? Like, did they try to defend the things Trump has said?

LUCAS: Well, Trump attorney John Lauro said basically everything that Trump has said is protected by the First Amendment, and he denied that any of the statements that Trump has made have been threatening. He stressed that this case is unprecedented. It's the prosecution of a former president, a current candidate for president. It's the middle of the presidential campaign. And he accused the Biden administration of trying to censor Trump, who is, of course, Biden's chief political rival. Now, Lauro said Trump is entitled to speak his mind, to call the case against him politically motivated if he thinks so, and to speak truth to what he said was oppression.

Now, Chutkan jumped in at that point and she basically told Lauro to tone it down. She said she understands that he has a message that he wants to get out, but she didn't want any campaign rhetoric in her courtroom. Lauro said the easiest solution in his mind here would be to push back the trial from March of next year until after the 2024 election. Chutkan immediately shut that down. She said, this trial is not going to yield to the election cycle.

CHANG: And how did Chutkan explain her decision?

LUCAS: Well, she listened to about two hours of arguments in the courtroom, and then she took a brief recess. And when she came back, she said, this isn't about whether she likes the language that Trump uses. This is about language that presents a danger to the administration of justice. She said Trump can criticize the government in general terms. He can criticize the Biden administration. He can criticize the Justice Department. He can even publicly argue that his prosecution is politically motivated. But no criminal defendant, she said, would be allowed to call the prosecutor a deranged thug like Trump has called Jack Smith. No criminal defendant would be allowed to smear the prosecutors like that. She said it's not going to happen in this case either. Trump's candidacy, she said, does not give him carte blanche to vilify public servants who are just doing their job.

And so she barred him and other parties as well for making or reposting any statements publicly targeting the special counsel and his staff, any statements publicly targeting any of the judge's staff or court personnel. She also barred him from making statements about potential witnesses or the subject of their testimony. But he can, for example, criticize Mike Pence. But he can't talk about Pence's role in the events related to this case.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.