The former president’s lawyers claimed he was being muzzled in the midst of a campaign, but their filing exaggerated the constraints put on him by the order.
Lawyers for former President Donald J. Trump asked an appeals court in Washington on Wednesday to throw out the gag order imposed on him in the federal case in which he stands accused of plotting to overturn the 2020 election, calling it an effort to “muzzle” a presidential candidate “at the height of his re-election campaign.”
“No court has ever imposed a gag order on the political speech of a candidate for public office, let alone the leading candidate for president of the United States — until now,” D. John Sauer, a lawyer who is handling the appeal for Mr. Trump, wrote.
Mr. Sauer’s entreaty to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was merely the latest in a dizzying round of back-and-forth moves involving the gag order, which was put in place last month to keep Mr. Trump from targeting members of the court’s staff, prosecutors or witnesses involved in his election interference case in Federal District Court in Washington.
Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who initially imposed the order, paused it briefly three weeks ago to consider some issues involving the appeal, but then reinstated it at the request of prosecutors in the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith, after Mr. Trump continued to violate its provisions.
Not long after, the appeals court itself temporarily suspended the order as it mulled Mr. Trump’s request for a more sustained pause. The gag order, at least for the moment, remains in abeyance as the appeals court works over the next two weeks to determine if it should have been issued in the first place.
Many of the arguments raised in Mr. Sauer’s 67-page filing to the appeals court have appeared in other guises during the protracted battle over the order. Gagging Mr. Trump, he wrote, was an unconstitutional “prior restraint” not only on the former president’s First Amendment rights, but also on those of “over 100 million Americans” who deserve to hear what he has to say.
Moreover, the order improperly limited Mr. Trump’s remarks in the middle of his presidential campaign — a moment, Mr. Sauer argued, when he enjoyed “heightened First Amendment interests as a political candidate.”
Like other lawyers who have sought to have Mr. Trump freed from the gag order, Mr. Sauer at times exaggerated the strictures it imposed on the former president.
He claimed, for instance, that the order barred Mr. Trump from making statements “about key aspects of his prosecution at the hands of the administration he is seeking to replace” — issues, he added, that were “inextricably entwined” with Mr. Trump’s run for office.
In fact, when Judge Chutkan put the order in place, she explicitly permitted Mr. Trump to criticize President Biden, his administration or what Mr. Trump characterizes as the political nature of the prosecution. But Mr. Trump was not allowed to go after any members of her court staff, Mr. Smith or members of his staff, or anyone who might reasonably be expected to testify at the trial.
Mr. Smith’s team had asked for the gag order to be put in place amid what they called Mr. Trump’s “near daily” social media messages attacking Mr. Smith, other prosecutors on the case and even Judge Chutkan herself.
But Mr. Sauer scoffed at the prosecutors’ claims that Mr. Trump’s remarks, however threatening, had led to actual harassment or threats against anyone covered by the order.
Mr. Sauer’s filing said that he intended to seek emergency relief from the U.S. Supreme Court if the appeals court upheld any portion of the gag order.