As Mitch McConnell steps down from his role as the Senate Republican leader, it marks not only the conclusion of a historic tenure but also a poignant moment in the GOP’s ideological evolution.
GOP Republicans and former President Donald Trump eagerly await the court verdict on gag orders issued by judges on the election subversion in Washington D.C. and Georgia and civil fraud trial case in New York as Trump seeks to ramp up his race to the primaries before the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire meet in the coming month.
Judges in New York, Washington DC and Georgia are grappling with restrictions on what defendants in Trump can say about their cases without jeopardising their free speech or a fair trial. The federal gag order being considered by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals could set new guidelines on how far defendants can go in criticising prosecutors, judges and witnesses in pending cases, multiple media reports said.
Trump and his legal team invoked the First Amendment to lift the gag order so as to allow him to speak freely in his election campaigns.
Trump and his co-defendants have vocally protested their innocence and criticised their prosecutions while most defendants normally remain silent before a trial and often decline to testify. The court decisions will be crucial to Trump. The appeals court is headed by two judges appointed by former President Barack Obama and another by incumbent President Joe Biden. They paused the gag order to allow the court hearings to play out.
“It’s rare that you have criminal defendants who have the megaphone that a former President does or that other high-profile defendants have,” said Alex Reinert, a criminal law professor and expert on criminal procedure at the Cardozo Law School.
“I think in Trump’s case it seems less about the criminal case and more about his campaign and about airing grievances that will resonate with his base (voters).”
Donald Trump is fighting gag orders he contends will muzzle him during the 2024 presidential campaign. But prosecutors argue court staffers and witnesses should be protected from potential threats. Judges in New York and Washington imposed gag orders on what Trump can say about his trials, but he appealed by arguing he should be allowed to criticise participants in those cases while running his campaign at the White House for the 2024 presidential elections.
Prosecutors contend people mentioned in Trump’s social media posts are sometimes threatened and harassed, but he contends he can’t be held responsible for actions others take.
Gabriel Sterling, a senior Georgia election official, lost his temper over the death threats he witnessed during the 2020 vote count, including a social-media post that featured a swinging noose and exposed the name of a Dominion Voting Systems tech worker.
“It has all gone too far,” Sterling, who had police protection himself, told reporters on December 1, 2020, while imploring then President Donald Trump to show leadership and condemn the threats.
“Someone is going to get hurt. Someone is going to get shot. Someone is going to get killed,” USA TODAY quoted Sterling as saying.
Trump’s supporters follow-up on his ‘Truth Social’ comments and keep posting messages on social media and issue threats on texts and phone messages to harass court staff and witnesses, prosecutors contend.
One of Trump’s 18 co-defendants in the Georgia election racketeering case, which charges them with trying to overturn the election results, referred to Sterling with an emoji of poop. Sterling testified he didn’t like being called a piece of poop, but didn’t consider it a threat.
“It’s par for the course when you’re a public figure,” said Sterling, the Chief Operating Officer for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.
Judges have restricted speech in three Trump cases: The New York judge in Trump’s civil fraud trial, Arthur Engoron, ordered Trump and his lawyers not to comment on court staff, including clerk Allison Greenfield, who was criticised repeatedly for allegedly influencing Engoron. Engoron fined Trump a combined $15,000 for two violations. Trump appealed, but an appellate panel restored the gag order while the dispute was argued.
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, presiding over his federal election conspiracy case, barred Trump from commenting on court staff, prosecutors or potential witnesses. Trump appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments on November 20.
Trump’s bond agreement in his Georgia election racketeering case requires him not to contact witnesses or co-defendants to discuss facts of the case and not to directly or indirectly threaten witnesses or co-defendants, including through social media posts.
Prosecutors asked Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee to revoke the bond of one of Trump’s 14 remaining co-defendants, Harrison Floyd, for posting on social media about witnesses in the case. But McAfee refused and instead asked for new restrictions on Floyd’s comments.