Donald Trump Gets Rare Sympathy From Judge

Former President Donald Trump received rare sympathy from a judge as a federal appellate court heard oral arguments about the gag order issued against him in his federal election interference case.

Judge Patricia Millett, a Barack Obama appointee, expressed concern during Monday’s hearing over the challenges that Trump would face as a Republican presidential candidate limited by a gag order.

Noting that Trump hasn’t participated in any of the GOP presidential debates thus far, Millett asked about what would happen if he chooses to do so later down the road.

“He has to speak ‘Miss Manners,’ while everyone else is throwing targets at him?” the judge asked. “It would be really hard in a debate, when everyone else is going at you full bore. Your attorneys would have to have scripted little things you can say.”

The gag order—which bars the former president from criticizing Special Counsel Jack Smith, his staff and potential witnesses in the case—was issued by Judge Tanya Chutkan on October 16, but had been paused earlier this month while the appeals panel considered the matter.

Donald Trump on November 18, 2023, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. An appeals judge suggested it would be unfair for Trump to abide by the existing gag order in his federal election interference case if he were in a GOP nomination debate.
Jim Vondruska/Getty Images

On Monday, Trump’s lawyers arguing that his constitutional rights had been violated, while Smith and his team argued for the gag order to be reinstated as necessary to restrain Trump from intimidating or silencing key witnesses.

While Millett said of Smith that “surely he has a thick enough skin” to handle Trump’s criticisms, she disagreed that the former president’s First Amendment rights were under attack.

“First of all, we’re not shutting down everyone who speaks,” she said. “This is only affecting the speech temporarily during a criminal trial process by someone who has been indicted as a felon.”

Millett’s comments come as the appellate court signaled they would keep the gag order in place, while significantly narrowing it in scope so that Trump would face fewer restrictions.

During the hearing, Judge Cornelia Pillard, another Obama appointee, cast doubt as to whether Trump’s remarks about figures like former Vice President Mike Pence, former Attorney General Bill Barr or former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley would be intimidating enough to convince them into changing their testimony about him.

But Pillard also suggested that Trump’s attorneys were not doing enough to acknowledge Chutkan’s responsibility to protect the trial scheduled for March 4, 2024, telling the former president’s team, “I don’t hear you giving any weight at all to the interests in a fair trial.”

The third judge, and President Joe Biden nominee, Bradley Garcia, noted that the order had been issued after a detailed hearing on the matter.

“We have to use a careful scalpel here,” Millett said about the gag order.

It is unclear whether the appeals panel will rewrite the order itself or send it back to Chutkan with suggestions on how to tailor it from its first iteration. It is also unclear how soon an updated gag order could come.