WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal judge overseeing the 2020 election conspiracy case against Donald Trump will hear arguments Friday over a request by prosecutors for a protective order seeking to bar the former president from publicly disclosing evidence shared by the government.
The protective order sought by special counsel Jack Smith’s team has become an early flashpoint in the case accusing the Republican of illegally scheming to subvert the will of voters and cling to power after he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Protective orders aren’t unusual in criminal cases, and they’re different from “gag orders” that bar parties from talking publicly about an ongoing case outside the courtroom. But lawyers for Trump — who has railed against prosecutors and U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on social media and during campaign events — say the proposed protective order goes too far and would restrict Trump’s free speech rights.
In seeking the protective order, prosecutors pointed to a post on Trump’s Truth Social social media platform in which the former president promised he would be “coming after” those who “go after” him. Prosecutors expressed concern that Trump might share secret grand jury information that could have a “harmful chilling effect on witnesses.”
The hearing in Washington’s federal court will be the first time the lawyers appear before Chutkan, an appointee of President Barack Obama who has a reputation for being one of the toughest punishers of defendants charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump is not expected to attend the hearing.
He pleaded not guilty last week before a magistrate judge to charges including conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstructing Congress’ certification of Biden’s electoral victory.
The protective order would set rules on what Trump and his defense team can do with evidence handed over by prosecutors. Prosecutors’ proposal seeks to prevent Trump and his lawyers from disclosing those materials to anyone other than people on his legal team, possible witnesses, the witnesses’ lawyers or others approved by the court.
Trump’s team wants the judge to impose a more limited order that would bar the public release only of materials deemed “sensitive” — such as grand jury documents. They 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.”
Prosecutors have 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.”
Trump has characterized the case and two others he faces as efforts to hurt his campaign to reclaim the White House in 2024. His legal team has indicated that it will argue that he relied on the advice of attorneys around him in 2020 and that Trump had a right to challenge an election that he believed had been stolen.
Trump has already said he will push to have the case moved out of Washington, claiming he can’t get a fair trial in the heavily Democratic city that voted overwhelmingly for Biden. But it’s extremely difficult to get a case moved, and judges in Washington — including the one overseeing his case — have repeatedly rejected similar efforts by Trump supporters charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
Prosecutors on Thursday told the judge they are seeking a Jan. 2 trial date in the case. Trump’s lawyers have yet to suggest a trial date but have indicated they will seek to slow down the case. The judge is expected to choose a date at the next hearing scheduled for Aug. 28.
Trump is already scheduled to go to trial in March in a case in New York stemming from hush money payments made during the 2016 campaign. The former president is also scheduled to go to trial in May in another case brought by Smith over his handling of classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
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