An appeals court is weighing a bid by Donald Trump to halt the limited gag order he faces in his federal trial on election subversion charges.
The order keeps Mr Trump from speaking out against court personnel, potential witnesses or the special counsel’s office. It is currently on hold.
Lawyers for the former president and current Republican frontrunner called for the order to be revoked.
But a three-judge panel appeared sceptical over lifting the restriction.
The trio of Democratic appointees grilled both sides over the most appropriate way to balance free speech considerations with the integrity and safety of those involved in a criminal trial that begins next March.
After an initial hearing that was scheduled for 40 minutes but lasted more than two hours, the judges did not issue an immediate ruling.
Attorneys for Mr Trump had challenged what they called an effort to censor his speech in the midst of a hotly contested presidential campaign.
But prosecutors with the US justice department argued he has a “well-established practice of using his public platform to target his adversaries”.
Mr Trump’s criticism of those involved in the federal case over the 2020 election had occurred most recently this weekend, they noted.
At a Saturday campaign rally in Iowa, Mr Trump called Special Counsel Jack Smith, the key prosecutor involved in the case, “deranged” and a “Trump-hating prosecutor”.
He also said that Mr Smith’s “wife and family despise me much more than he does”, at “about a 15 on a scale of 10”.
They were the types of remarks that Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the election subversion case, has sought to limit since she issued a “narrowly tailored” gag order last month.
Her intention, she said, was to prevent “a pre-trial smear campaign”.
“The order is unprecedented and it sets a terrible precedent for future restrictions on core political speech,” John Sauer, Mr Trump’s attorney, told the Washington DC appeals court on Monday.
Mr Sauer claimed there was no evidence that anybody involved in the case was facing an “imminent, pending threat” because of Mr Trump.
But the three judges on the panel tasked with reviewing the order pressed Mr Sauer on where the line should be drawn for the former president.
“We’re not shutting down everyone who speaks,” said Judge Patricia Millett. “This is only affecting the speech temporarily during a criminal trial process by someone who has been indicted as a felon.”
Mr Trump has a pattern of making “political speech aimed at derailing or corrupting the criminal justice process”, she added, pointing to a Texas woman’s recent death threats toward Judge Chutkan.
“The day after he said, ‘If you come after me, I’m coming after you,’ that threat was issued,” Judge Millett said.
They did suggest they may narrow Judge Chutkan’s order in some ways, however.
“It can’t be that he can’t mention Mr Smith,” Judge Cornelia Pillard told prosecutors at one point. The special counsel’s name is “part of the public record”, she said, and “surely he has a thick enough skin”.
Mr Trump faces three counts of conspiring to interfere with the vote count of the 2020 presidential race and one count of obstructing an official proceeding. The former president has accused President Joe Biden and his administration of weaponising the US legal system against him.
In total, Mr Trump faces 91 felony charges across four criminal cases. He was already under a gag order in his ongoing civil fraud trial in New York.
He attacked presiding judge Arthur Engoron’s principal law clerk on his Truth Social platform in that case, and has since been fined twice over violations.
That gag order’s status is unclear, however, as it was temporarily lifted by a state appeals court on Thursday.