The United States judge overseeing Donald Trump’s election interference case has said she will limit the evidence the former president will be allowed to share from his trial but stopped short of granting the blanket ban prosecutors had sought.
During a court hearing on Friday, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan addressed concerns that Trump could release evidence on social media. She told his lawyers that the former president’s defence “is supposed to happen in this courtroom, not on the internet”.
She also cautioned that “arguably ambiguous statements” could be construed as intimidation or harassment of potential witnesses. “I will take whatever measures are necessary to safeguard the integrity of the case,” Chutkan said.
Prosecutors had sought a broad protective order barring the ex-president from sharing any details of the government’s evidence publicly, claiming that Trump — who regularly takes to social media to slam officials involved in the case against him — could use the details to influence witnesses.
But Trump’s defence lawyers had argued that a wide-reaching order would violate his right to free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
“Mr Trump, like every American, has a First Amendment right to free speech, but that right is not absolute. In a criminal case such as this one, the defendant’s free speech is subject to the rules,” Chutkan said during the hearing, as reported by CNN.
Chutkan agreed with Trump’s defence team on a looser version of a protective order for evidence in the case, but she largely sided with the prosecution on what sensitive materials should be protected.
She later officially approved a protective order that will allow Trump to share any records that are already in the public domain or that he obtained independently. He is not, however, permitted to share other kinds of materials such as those arising from the grand jury or items obtained through sealed search warrants.
“He is a criminal defendant. He is going to have restrictions like every single other defendant. This case is proceeding in the normal order,” Chutkan said. “The fact the defendant is engaged in a political campaign is not going to allow him any greater or lesser latitude than any defendant in a criminal case.”
Trump pleaded not guilty on August 3 in a Washington, DC, courtroom to four federal charges related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 US election that he lost to his Democratic rival, President Joe Biden.
The case is the third criminal indictment filed against the former president since March.
He also faces state charges in New York over a hush-money payment to an adult film star and federal charges linked to accusations he mishandled classified government documents at his Florida estate.
Trump, who remains the frontrunner in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination race, has denounced all the cases against him as an effort to derail his re-election campaign.
“When you look at what’s happening, this is a persecution of a political opponent,” Trump said after his early August arraignment hearing in the election case. “This was never supposed to happen in America.”
Experts have said the 2020 election interference case marks the most significant of the three criminal indictments against Trump, with one expert calling it “probably the most significant legal case in the nation’s history”.
The indictment accuses Trump of pursuing “unlawful means of discounting legitimate votes and subverting the election results” in an attempt to scuttle Biden’s 2020 victory.
The protection order
The legal battle over the proposed protection order had become an early flashpoint in the widely watched case.
When prosecutors proposed the order, they called the judge’s attention to a post on Trump’s Truth Social platform in which he said he would be “coming after” those who “go after” him.
They also accused Trump of objecting to their proposal because he wants to be able to use the government’s evidence to “try the case in the media rather than in the courtroom”.
The prosecutors had proposed a protective order barring Trump and his lawyers from disclosing materials provided by the government to anyone other than people on his legal team, possible witnesses, the witnesses’ lawyers or others approved by the court.
They also asked for stricter limits on “sensitive materials”, which would include grand jury witness testimony and materials obtained through sealed search warrants. In those instances, Trump could only be shown the documents, not get a copy himself.
Trump’s team, meanwhile, had asked for a more narrow order that would bar the public release only of the materials deemed “sensitive”, such as grand jury documents.
His defence lawyers wrote in court papers that the need to protect sensitive information “does not require a blanket gag order over all documents produced by the government”.
Meanwhile, prosecutors have indicated that they want the case to move to trial swiftly, and this week they proposed a January 2 trial date.
Trump responded to that on Thursday, writing on Truth Social that “such a trial, which should never take place due to my First Amendment Rights, and massive BIDEN CORRUPTION, should only happen, if at all, AFTER THE ELECTION” in November 2024.
During Friday’s court hearing, Chutkan said that the more anyone makes “inflammatory” statements about the case, the greater her urgency will be to move the case more quickly to trial to prevent the contamination of the jury pool.