U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan set the tone for how she will handle the election subversion against Donald Trump in a hearing Friday focused on what limits will be placed on how the former president can deal with the evidence prosecutors will hand him.
Chutkan opened the hearing — the first in the case before her and one held in her courtroom in D.C. Federal Court — by noting that while Trump’s rights as a criminal defendant would be protected, his right to free speech according to the First Amendment “is not absolute.”
“In a criminal case like this, the defendant’s freedom of speech is subject to the rules,” she said.
The judge closed the hearing with a promise that the case would progress like any normal proceeding in the criminal justice system, but warned that the more “inflammatory” statements made by a party, the faster he would have to proceed to trial to preserve fair jury.
“It is a fundamental principle of the judicial process in this country,” she said, citing precedent, “that trials are not like elections to be won by the use of the courtroom and the radio and the newspaper.”
“This case is no exception,” she said.
During the proceedings, she expressed some skepticism about the arguments made by special counsel Jack Smith’s office, siding with Trump on at least a few issues related to the evidentiary order that were the subject of Friday’s hearing. Referring to a statement from the government, which she refused to let be sealed, she also stressed the need for public transparency about the case.
The meeting, which lasted about an hour and 40 minutes, was the first in the case before Chutkan. She has already made a habit of responding quickly and succinctly to cross-party debates on the timetable. An Obama appointee and former public defender who has handled several cases related to the events of January 6, 2021, Chutkan has been outspoken about the damage the attack on the US Capitol has done to American democracy.
Chutkan later issued a protective order barring Trump from publicly disclosing sensitive information about the case.
Trump pleaded not guilty to four criminal charges related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election last week, and the judge warned Trump’s lawyers, who were not present at the hearing, against any public statements by their client that could intimidate witnesses.
Regardless of whether Trump’s public statements are covered by the protective order, she said, if they result in witness intimidation or obstruction of justice, “I will look at them very carefully.”
Trump’s lawyer, John Lauro, said: “President Trump will strictly abide by the terms of his release.”
Chutkan later said that “even an equivocal statement by any party or lawyer … could jeopardize the trial.”
Chutkan accepted restrictions proposed by prosecutors that would have barred Trump from publicly disclosing “sensitive information” — including interviews with witnesses — that has been turned over to his legal team by special investigators in the case.
She also rejected Trump’s requests for broader language in the order that would have allowed people not directly employed by the defense team — including volunteers — to access the findings.
Although Chutkan denied a broader protective order sought by prosecutors who wanted to seal all evidence turned over in discovery, it limited how Trump and his legal team could handle and publicly share sensitive information.
Her order designates sensitive information as grand jury secret, including subpoenaed information and testimony; transcripts and recordings of witness interviews conducted by non-grand jury investigators; evidence obtained through court-approved searches; and sealed warrants related to the investigation. Evidence that Trump cannot share publicly also includes material from other government agencies, such as the Secret Service.
Prosecutors said the sensitive information made up a large amount of the evidence they collected.
The order also specifies that while Trump can review the evidence without a lawyer and take notes about it, he cannot enter any particularly personal information into those notes and cannot take photographs, copies or recordings of the evidence.
Chutkan’s handling of the case is likely to serve as a contrast to U.S. District Judge Eileen Cannon, a Trump appointee in Florida, who has been in no rush to move forward in the classified documents case against the former president. Cannon had already come under heavy scrutiny for what critics say was favorable treatment of the former president in a previous lawsuit Trump filed last year, challenging aspects of the Justice Department’s investigation
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Chutkan and Lauro had several heated exchanges about what the 2024 presidential candidate should be allowed to say about the evidence presented to him in the case.
“Nobody agrees that any speech that intimidates a witness is going to be banned, what we’re talking about is fair use of information,” Lauro said at one point, hypothesizing that Trump was going public with some of his personal memories. which is also evidence in the case.
“The fact that he is running a political campaign must now be subordinated to the administration of justice,” the judge said. “And if that means he can’t say exactly what he wants to say in a political speech, that’s just the way it’s going to have to be.”
Lauro hypothesized a statement Trump made while debating his former vice president, Mike Pence — who is also running for the White House now and is a key witness in the criminal case — that overlapped with what was being revealed.
The judge was not sold.
“He is accused of criminal offences. He will have the same restrictions as any defendant. This case will continue in the normal course,” Chutkan said.
“You’re conflating what your client needs to do to protect himself and what he wants to do politically,” she told him. “And what your client does to defend himself should happen in this courtroom, not on the Internet.”
The special counsel said in court filings Thursday that he wants the trial to begin on Jan. 2, 2024, a date Trump rejected in a social media post.
This story has been updated with additional developments.