Trump argues proposed limits on 2020 election case evidence violate free speech

By Jacqueline Thomsen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Donald Trump’s lawyers urged a federal judge on Monday to reject a protective order sought by prosecutors ahead of the former U.S. president’s 2020 election trial, saying it would violate his free speech rights under the Constitution.

Prosecutors, in asking for the protective order, argued that Trump could otherwise improperly disclose confidential evidence before trial.

In a filing late on Monday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered the two sides to meet on Tuesday and agree on two possible dates for a hearing to be held no later than Friday on the matter.

Trump’s attorneys, in a 29-page filing to U.S. District Court in Washington on Monday, did not directly address the assertion of potential witness intimidation.

They did acknowledge that some court documents should be shielded from the public, such as materials from the grand jury investigation that led to last week’s indictment accusing Trump of orchestrating a plot to overturn his 2020 election loss.

“However, the need to protect that information does not require a blanket gag order over all documents produced by the government,” Trump’s attorneys wrote in the court papers.

“In a trial about First Amendment rights, the government seeks to restrict First Amendment rights,” Trump’s attorneys said, referring to the right of free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

In a reply brief, prosecutors said that since they had asked for the protective order, Trump’s attorneys had discussed the case on major U.S. television networks. Prosecutors said Trump had a “plan to litigate this case in the media.”

Trump on Thursday pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he conspired to try to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democratic President Joe Biden. It was the third criminal case brought against Trump so far this year.

At his arraignment on Thursday, Trump swore to not intimidate witnesses or communicate with them about the case without legal counsel present.

Prosecutors on Friday, in their request for a protective order from Chutkan, pointed to a post from Trump on his Truth Social site that said, “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”

Prosecutors said the post could suggest that Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, might try to intimidate witnesses.

Under a process known as discovery, prosecutors must provide defendants with the evidence against them so they can prepare a defense. Prosecutors in their Friday filing said they are prepared to provide Trump with a “substantial amount” of evidence once a protective order is issued.

A Trump spokesperson on Saturday denied that the Friday post was related to the trial, saying instead that Trump was attacking people dubbed “Republicans in Name Only,” or RINOs.

But Trump’s social media posts have escalated since prosecutors’ Friday court filing. He has said he will seek to have Chutkan, who was appointed to the bench by Democratic President Barack Obama, recused from the case. Trump’s lawyers have not yet officially made that request.

Chutkan previously ruled against Trump in a civil lawsuit seeking to block White House records from a congressional investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

She also has strongly spoken out against the Capitol attack in criminal cases stemming from the riots. Prior court rulings are not enough to require a federal judge to step aside from a case.

Trump lawyer John Lauro has said he will seek to transfer the 2020 election case from Washington, D.C., to West Virginia. While criminal cases are sometimes tried in different locations than where they are brought in order to sit an impartial jury, others charged in the Capitol siege have failed in trying to have their criminal cases transferred out of the Washington federal trial court.

(Reporting by Jacqueline Thomsen; additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone, Howard Goller and Leslie Adler)

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