“Judge imposes gag order on Donald Trump” is a perfect headline for Trump’s campaign fundraising machine, which is bleeding mounds of cash to pay for the former president’s mounting legal bills. It’s a snappy statement, free of any context, and has the power to immediately rile up both fans and foes on social media.
The Trump campaign kicked into high gear after a federal judge hit the former president with a protective order on Monday, a common occurrence in legal cases under intense media scrutiny. The partial gag order is limited in scope, but Trump and his campaign quickly framed it as an attack on Trump’s “free speech” and his effort to “save America” from “Third World Marxist Tyranny,” as one message in a flurry of emails to supporters put it on Tuesday. The email adds that MAGA fans who donate $47 to the campaign will receive a t-shirt with a picture of Trump.
Trump is defending himself, his family members and various associates in multiple criminal and civil cases while running for president a second time. In statements and fundraising messages, Trump and his campaign have consistently painted these disparate cases as a coordinated effort led by President Joe Biden as well as Democrats, Marxists, RINOs, and other vague entities that appeal to conspiracy theorists.
In the first half of 2023 alone, Trump’s Save America PAC spent $23 million on attorneys and legal costs, according to the Associated Press. Groups in Trump’s political and fundraising network have reported using about $130 million in funds raised from donors to pay lawyers and cover legal bills since he first ran for president in 2016.
Another email to supporters from the Trump campaign declares: “A GAG ORDER HAS BEEN OFFICIALLY DECLARED ON ME BY THE REQUEST OF JOE BIDEN,” a claim that is entirely false and further proves that Judge Tanya Chutkan crafted the gag order with surgical precision even as Trump and his campaign act as a firehouse of disinformation.
Chutkan is the federal judge overseeing Special Counsel Jack Smith’s case against Trump for attempting to subvert the 2020 election results. Prosecutors originally proposed a protective order that would have likely barred Trump from falsely claiming, as he often does, that the Justice Department and various prosecutors are persecuting him on Biden’s orders.
Biden is not involved with the case, and the attorney general appointed Smith to serve as an independent special counsel to avoid conflict of interest. In seeking the gag order, Smith’s team accused Trump of using online attacks to undermine public confidence in the courts and sway potential jurors.
However, Chutkan issued a narrower order and clarified that Trump can “certainly state that he is being unfairly prosecuted.” Instead, the order forbids him and other “interested parties” in the trial from making public statements targeting or threatening people directly involved, including Smith and his staff, court staffers and “any reasonably foreseeable witness or the substance of their testimony.” Trump announced on Wednesday that he plans to appeal the order.
“He can criticize President Biden to his heart’s content, your honor, because President Biden has nothing to do with this case,” prosecutor Molly Gaston said in court, adding that Trump can continue calling Biden “crooked.” But Gaston also argued that Trump knows his posts on social media “motivate people to threaten others,” which could chill potential witnesses and taint the jury pool.
Along with vague threats and launching public attacks, one of Trump’s favorite tactics for muddying media coverage and stirring up online rage is mocking judges, prosecutors and potential witnesses, which has led to mob violence and barrages of death threats against poll workers, judges, and other perceived enemies. The retiring Sen. Mitt Romney, a former GOP presidential nominee and current Trump critic, recently disclosed that he spends $5,000 a day on private security to protect himself and his family from Trump supporters.
Trump, the GOP presidential frontrunner who enjoys an audience of millions on his own social media site, has called Smith a “thug” and suggested that Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a likely witness in the case, would be executed for treason at a different time in history.
“When you start to use a word like ‘thug’ to describe a prosecutor doing their job, that wouldn’t be allowed by any other criminal defendant,” Chutkan said in court on Monday. “Just because the defendant is running a political campaign does not allow him to do whatever he wants.”
While complaining about “restrictions” on what he can say in public, Trump has continued to claim on social media that “crooked Joe Biden” told the Justice Department to indict him in order to sway the presidential election, without offering any evidence. And his campaign’s Save America joint fundraising committee continues to make appeals to small donors, calling on them to be a “voice against tyranny.”
A major beneficiary of the campaign’s joint fundraising committee is Trump’s Save America PAC, which has paid nearly $37 million to more than 60 law firms and individual attorneys since January 2022, federal election records show. That amounts to more than half of the PAC’s total expenditures and more than any other political committee that discloses to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
The Save America PAC has received a total of nearly $54 million from the Trump campaign’s joint fundraising campaign, as well as more than $5 million from the Make America Great Again PAC, according to the OpenSecrets campaign finance database.
There are questions about whether it’s legal for Trump and his fundraising machine to use political donations to pay legal costs for the former president and his codefendants, which could attract the eyes prosecutors as Trump’s legal snafus unfold. However, with the FEC gripped by partisan deadlock, the Trump campaign could dodge accountability for campaign finance violations for the near future, as it already has in dozens of cases.
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