Former President Donald Trump can access mountains of sensitive evidence—with tight restrictions—but he cannot scare witnesses involved in the federal criminal case against him for his attempted 2021 coup, a federal judge ruled on Friday.
District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan said Friday that she would mostly adopt the Trump legal team’s proposal for a protective order limiting how much the former president can say about the evidence against him in the D.C. case over Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.
Chutkan said she would not subject Trump to a gag order about “non-sensitive” information because the Department of Justice didn’t make it clear why that material needed special protection.
“It is close,” Chutkan said in the courtroom on Friday, according to Politico. “At this point, I’m not persuaded that the government has shown good cause to subject to the protective order all the information in this case.”
Trump’s legal team seems to be preparing to argue that Trump’s actions in trying to overturn the 2020 election were covered by his First Amendment rights of free speech, so while this protective order battle over what Trump can publicly say about the evidence against may seem small, it is a meaningful battle in their legal war.
The DOJ wanted to impose broad restrictions on what Trump could share about the case against him after he posted on social media last Friday that, “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”
Chutkan eased limitations on how Trump could see the evidence against him collected by Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith but still kept certain interviews marked “sensitive” to limit the potential danger, according to several journalists present during the proceedings.
She noted her concern that Trump—who keeps using campaign speeches and social media posts to rage against prosecutors, judges, and associates helping investigators whom he considers disloyal—will resort to witness intimidation. “I intend to keep politics out of this,” she said, according to The Messenger’s Adam Klasfeld and The Independent’s Andrew Feinberg.
The decision wasn’t all bad for the DOJ, however. Chutkan denied changes that the defense proposed over what materials were “sensitive,” and she said she wasn’t “comfortable” with the Trump team’s proposal that volunteer lawyers should be able to review discovery documents in the case.
Chutkan was also clear that she doesn’t intend to let politics decide this case. She chastised one of Trump’s lawyers for “conflating what your client needs to do to defend himself and what your client wants to do politically.”
“Your client’s defense is supposed to happen in this courtroom, not on the internet,” Chutkan said, according to Politico.
Trump lawyer John Lauro said his client was concerned that normal comments from the campaign trail could trigger complaints of witness intimidation. Trump may have already planned to sit out the first GOP debate in two weeks, but the prospect of potentially violating a court order is making the decision all that much easier.
Chutkan was having none of it. “He’s a criminal defendant. He is going to have restrictions like every single other defendant,” she said.
In that regard, Lauro seemed resigned.
“President Trump will scrupulously abide by his conditions of release,” he said.
Just a few hours after the court hearing, the judge released the five-page protective order that allows the DOJ to mark witness interviews and other incriminating evidence as “sensitive”—while preventing Trump from sharing those with the outside world. The former president is not even allowed to keep his phone or any other recording device with him when reviewing the material with his defense lawyers.