Trump’s lawyer argues the order violates free speech, while judges say his rhetoric could jeopardize the integrity of his upcoming trial.

Judges on the United States Court of Appeals have signaled skepticism over Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn a gag order imposed on the former president in a federal criminal case accusing him of illegally trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat.

It prohibits Trump from publicly denigrating prosecutors, potential witnesses or court employees involved in the case.

Trump lawyer D. John Sauer argued Monday that the order violates the First Amendment right to free speech of the U.S. Constitution, while judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia questioned whether Trump’s charged rhetoric threatened the integrity of his upcoming trial would.

“I have not heard you give any weight to the interests of a fair trial,” Judge Cornelia Pillard told Sauer.

Pillard is one of three judges who heard Trump’s appeal of the gag order imposed by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the case.

Chutkan ruled that public statements by Trump or his lawyers criticizing prosecutors, court staff and potential witnesses could influence witnesses and lead to threats against people involved in the case.

But Chutkan allowed Trump to “criticize the Justice Department, President Biden and himself.” She also allowed him to claim that the prosecution itself was a partisan retaliation against him,” the New York Times reported.

“The order is unprecedented and sets a terrible precedent for future restrictions on key political expression,” Sauer said during the two-hour hearing.

Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 election, has attacked officials involved in a series of criminal and civil cases he is facing. He described US special prosecutor Jack Smith, who brought the federal election charges, as a “deranged lunatic” and a “thug”.

Trump’s comments about prosecutors and witnesses pit his right to free speech against the need for a fair trial next year.

The silence order was suspended pending Trump’s appeal. Trump pleaded not guilty in that case and in all three other criminal cases.

The justices asked Justice Department attorney Cecil VanDevender whether the order was too broad.

“We have to use a careful scalpel here,” said Judge Patricia Millett, a Democratic judge like the other two on the panel.

VanDevender said the order still allows Trump to make full arguments about the integrity of the case.

“He can say, ‘This is a politically motivated prosecution of my political opponent,’ ‘The Justice Department is corrupt,’ and ‘I will be vindicated in court’ – all that stuff,” VanDevender said.

The judges did not announce when they would rule.

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