Judge denies request to restrict Trump statements about law enforcement in classified records case

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media outside of his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court, Tuesday, May 28, 2024, in New York. (Steven Hirsch/New York Post via AP, Pool)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The judge overseeing Donald Trump's classified documents case in Florida on Tuesday denied prosecutors' request to bar the former president from making public statements that could endanger law enforcement agents participating in the prosecution.

Prosecutors had told U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon that the restriction was necessary to protect law enforcement from potential threats and harassment after the presumptive Republican presidential nominee baselessly claimed that the Biden administration wanted to kill him during a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, nearly two years ago.

Cannon chided prosecutors in her order denying their request, saying they didn’t give defense lawyers adequate time to discuss the matter before it was filed Friday evening. The judge warned prosecutors that failing to comply with court requirements in the future may lead to sanctions. She denied the request without prejudice, meaning prosecutors could file it again.

A spokesperson for special counsel Jack Smith's team declined to comment Tuesday.

The judge's decision came as Trump's lawyers were delivering their closing argument at trial in another criminal case he's facing in New York stemming from a hush money payment to a porn actor during the 2016 presidential campaign.

It’s the latest example of bitterness between Cannon, who was nominated to the bench by Trump, and prosecutors who have accused the former president of illegally hoarding at his Mar-a-Lago estate classified documents that he took with him after he left the White House in 2021 and then obstructing the FBI’s efforts to get them back. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied wrongdoing.

Cannon has chided prosecutors both in hearings and in court papers over a number of matters, including telling Smith’s team during one hearing that it was “wasting the court’s time.” Prosecutors have also signaled mounting frustration with Cannon’s rulings, saying in one recent court filing that a request from the judge was based on a “fundamentally flawed legal premise.”

Prosecutors' request followed a distorted claim by Trump last week that the FBI agents who searched his Mar-a-Lago estate in August 2022 were “authorized to shoot me” and were “locked & loaded ready to take me out & put my family in danger.”

Trump was referring to the disclosure in a court document that the FBI, during the search followed a standard use-of-force policy that prohibits the use of deadly force except when the officer conducting the search has a reasonable belief that the “subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person.”

The Justice Department policy is routine and meant to limit, rather than encourage, the use of force during searches. Prosecutors noted that the search of the Florida property was intentionally conducted when Trump and his family were out of state and was coordinated in advance with the U.S. Secret Service. No force was used.

Prosecutors said in court papers late Friday that Trump’s false suggestion that federal agents “were complicit in a plot to assassinate him” exposes law enforcement officers “to the risk of threats, violence, and harassment.” They had urged the judge to bar Trump from making any comments that “pose a significant, imminent, and foreseeable danger to law enforcement agents” participating in the case.

Defense attorneys in a court filing late Monday called prosecutors' proposed restriction on Trump's speech “unconstitutional” and noted that the identities of law enforcement officers in the case are subject to a protective order preventing their public release. Defense attorneys said they asked Smith's team on Friday if the two sides could meet on Monday to give the defense time to discuss the request with Trump before prosecutors filed it.

But prosecutor David Harbach said the situation needed to be addressed urgently, saying in an email to the defense that Trump created a situation that “necessitated a prompt request for relief that could not wait the weekend to file.” Prosecutors told the judge in their filing late Friday while Trump's lawyers didn't believe there is any “imminent danger,” Trump had continued that day to make false statements "smearing and endangering the agents who executed the search."

A spokesperson for Trump's campaign, Steven Cheung, said in a statement Tuesday that "the entire documents case was a political sham from the very beginning and it should be thrown out entirely.”

It’s among four criminal cases Trump is confronting as he seeks to reclaim the White House, but outside of the ongoing New York hush money prosecution, it’s unclear that any of the other three will reach trial before the November election.

Trump has already had restrictions placed on his speech in two of the other cases over incendiary comments officials say threaten the integrity of the prosecutions.

In the New York case, Trump has been fined and threatened with jail time for repeatedly violating a gag order that bars him from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and some others connected to the matter.

He’s also subject to a gag order in his federal criminal election interference case in Washington. That order limits what he can say about witnesses, lawyers in the case and court staff, though an appeals court freed him to speak about special counsel Smith, who brought the case.

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Associated Press reporter Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.