• Trump and the First Amendment, Both on Trial, Again

    December 9, 2023 // 4 Comments »

    No former president has challenged the limits of freedom of expression like Donald Trump. At times rude and always overbearing, Trump has tested the boundaries of what can be called political speech. Here’s the latest.

    The most significant challenge to the First Amendment came during Trump’s penalty phase trial for fraud, based on his over-valuing his properties in New York to obtain favorable loan rates. Trump muscle-tussled there with the presiding judge, Arthur Engoron and, oddly, his law clerk seated beside him on the bench. Already upset over what he felt was the clerk’s overextended involvement in the trial (to include whispering in the judge’s ear) Trump seized on a vanilla selfie photo of the clerk with Democratic Senator Charles Schumer to taunt her with the phrase “Schumer’s girlfriend” and insinuate as a Democrat the clerk was inherently biased against Trump.  In the way things work in 2023, these fifth grade-level slurs plus a few Trump complaints online about Engoron himself being biased morphed into “threats” somehow. Engoron went as far as to suggest Trump was sending attack messages to his MAGA army (“targeting”) and that lives were in danger.

    In retaliation Judge Engoron slapped a gag order on Trump, later extended to his attorneys as well. The order prohibited Trump from commenting on the trial, out loud, in the press, or on social media, and specifically said the law clerk was off-limits. Trump paid little attention to the order and was fined twice, for a total of $15,000, for violating it. Trump called Engoron an “extremely hostile” judge. His lawyers said there was evidence of “tangible and overwhelming” bias. Trump’s lawyers then filed a lawsuit against Engoron challenging his gag order as a violation of the First Amendment.

    Lawyers for Engoron argued he and his staff received hundreds of anti-Semitic calls and letters. They blamed Trump’s comments about Engoron and the clerk for amplifying his supporters’ anger toward them and said the clerk is “playing Whack-A-Mole now trying to block her phone number.” “It’s not that Mr. Trump has directly issued threats to the staff and Judge Engoron, it’s that what he’s said has led his constituents” to make threats, the lawyers argued, comparing the potential effect to the January 6 riot and a violent attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. “That is not political speech. That is threatening behavior and it should be stopped,” Engoron’s lawyers argued.

    The appeals forum which heard the case disagreed, particularly about the part saying what Trump was engaged in was not political speech. Judge David Friedman of the state’s intermediate appeals court issued a temporary stay suspending the Engoron gag order and allowing the former president to speak freely about court staff while the longer appeals process plays out. Friedman questioned “Engoron’s authority to police what Trump says outside the courtroom. He also disputed the trial judge’s contention that restricting the 2024 Republican front-runner’s speech was necessary or the right remedy to protect his staff’s safety.”

    Another gag attempt was also struck down last month, after the judge overseeing Trump’s Washington J6 case briefly paused a gag order she had imposed on him. Trump reacted to this three times in three days, calling Special Counsel Jack Smith “deranged.” Twice he weighed in about the deposition testimony of his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who could end up a witness at the trial. These moves prompted Smith’s team to ask the judge, Tanya Chutkan, to reinstate the gag order. She put the order back in place, though it has been frozen again as a federal appeals court considers whether Judge Chutkan properly imposed it in the first place. That temporary suspension left Trump free of all of the gag orders placed on him.

    Long term, a federal appeals court panel appeared poised to significantly narrow the gag order imposed against Donald Trump by the J6 judge Chutkan. The three-judge D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals panel raised concerns the order — which bars Trump from criticizing witnesses, prosecutors, and courthouse staff — created murky restrictions stifling the former president’s right to push back against his detractors, particularly in the heat of the campaign.

    What at first seems novel — it happened mostly on social media!– and soooooooooo Trump — the insults, the elementary school-quality teasing — was in fact at the core of what the First Amendment is all about. Political speech is among the most protected forms of speech, more so political speech critiquing the government. In fact not novel at all, Trump was engaged in the most basic form of expression designed to be protected by the First Amendment.

    Judge Engoron, standing in for King George here, played the role of evil government perfectly. He chose to use the power of government, the gag order, etc., to stop Trump (who claims the trial is political persecution in the first place) from criticizing the government, in the guise of his court, and then doubled-down by extending the order to Trump’s lawyers, and then triple-downed the whole mess saying the gag applied 24/7 to those named, all way beyond the limited point of a gag order (proper use is almost always to shield important information from a jury to not prejudice a case.) A gag order should enhance democracy by protecting the right to a trial by jury, not run rough shod over it silencing the political speech of someone on trial.

    The hardest thing sometimes to accept about the First Amendment is it often protects speech you don’t like made by people you don’t like, in this case Trump, who is presumed crude and guilty by some half of the electorate. This idea is captured in the quote”I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” often attributed to Voltaire, and apparently missing from both Judge Engoron’s and most undergraduates’ education. Those who bleat support for Israel/support for Palestine has no place on campus fall squarely into the same narrow box as Engoron, wanting to block speech which personally threatens them but does not rise to the level of threat established by the Supreme Court, or offends them, somehow believing the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech.” While speech might be offensive — or even feel threatening — to some people, to others “it is an expression of a political opinion, an unfiltered reaction to a recent event, or an attempt to rally support for a cause. The freedom to share provocative ideas and spark robust debate about political issues is essential to democracy, social justice, and progress.”

    That’s exactly what Trump is doing, criticizing his trials and their participants in real time via press conferences and especially social media, all protected by the 1A. Victory Trump, victory First Amendment.

     

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    What the Hell is Trump Doing in Court?

    November 8, 2023 // 15 Comments »

    It was a busy day in court for Donald Trump.

    In Washington on October 25 Special Counsel Jack Smith asked the court to reinstate a temporary gag order, this time with jail as the penalty, after Donald Trump called former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows (and by extension former allies who have cut deals in his election interference case elsewhere in Georgia) a weakling and coward if he agreed to testify in exchange for immunity. Trump had been under a earlier gag order which barred him from disparaging prosecutors, court staff, and potential witnesses in a pattern that the court filing called “targeting.” The fear was that Trump was calling out those he wanted MAGA supporters to go after. Smith urged Judge Chutkan to “modify the defendant’s conditions of release by making compliance with the Order a condition.”

    On the same day, in response to his violation of a separate New York court gag order Judge Engoron ordered the former president to testify over an insult Trump threw at the judge’s law clerk. The judge found Trump guilty of violating his gag order and ordered Trump to pay a $10,000 fine on top of an earlier $5000. Trump stormed out of the courtroom, his somewhat bewildered Secret Service in tow. Trump technically remains free only on bail.

    Pundits asked if Trump is actually trying to antagonize judges and lose both cases. Or could there be some other reason for Trump’s on-the-face-of-it non-self serving actions?

    — Trump may be breaking up under the strain. One hates to even go near the “Trump is insane” 25th Amendment crowd, who think they can judge someone’s mental state long distance but one has to allow for the possibility that the stress of having his very existence and ego challenged (the NY trial after all concerns Trump’s actual net worth and status as a real estate kingpin) by small-time mooks like a judge and his clerk may have gotten to Trump. We’re seeing it play out as he strives to control his temper (hence the storming out of the courtroom.) If this is even in part an explanation for Trump’s counter-productive behavior in court it is a dangerous one, adding too much unpredictability into already tense situations. Perhaps Trump simply can’t stop himself. He’s “spent a lifetime attacking those who don’t accommodate him,” and he’s not able to quit now.

    — Trump could easily believe none of this matters, certain he will be elected president in November 2024 and be in a position to pardon himself and any others convicted along the way. In Trump’s mind this is all or nothing and the little details, such as the outcome of a specific trial, matter not.

    — It’s all about the appeal, part I. Trump knows he will lose the case in front of Judge Engoron, who has already substantively ruled Trump guilty and is holding the current trial sessions primarily to establish the penalty. By egging the judge on to make statements such as finding a Trump response he did not like a “lie,” ruling “as a trier of fact, I find that the witness is not credible… hollow and untrue” Trump is setting up an appeal claiming the judge is biased against him (otherwise, you generally as a defendant do not do things to encourage the judge to throw the book at you.) It is unclear if this is productive or even needed; there is already plenty to work with in the guise of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, a star prosecution witness who is also a sworn enemy of Trump, a convicted felon, and serial liar singing for his supper. Cohen’s testimony is weak, claiming the former president never directly asked him to over-value Trump Organization assets, but instead implied somehow mind-reading style that he do so.

    — It’s all about the appeal, part II. The judges’ gag orders against Trump rub rough against the First Amendment, which will form the basis of appeals independent of the trial content themselves. The ACLU, no friend of Donald Trump, argues the gag order imposed by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington barring Trump from making public statements about special counsel Jack Smith, the defense counsel or members of the court violates the Constitution’s 1A. “No modern-day president did more damage to civil liberties and civil rights than President Trump,” the group wrote in a press release. “But if we allow his free speech rights to be abridged, we know that other unpopular voices — even ones we agree with — will also be silenced.”

    Specifically, the ACLU argued Chutkan’s order is too vague, too broad, and not sufficiently justified. Trump made many “patently false” statements which have “caused great harm to countless individuals,” the group wrote. But he nevertheless “retains a First Amendment right to speak, and the rest of us retain a right to hear what he has to say.” Prior restraint on Trump’s speech must be “precisely defined and narrowly tailored,” the ACLU wrote, arguing that Chutkan’s order “fails that test.” For example, the prohibition on making public statements that “target” certain individuals is “unconstitutionally vague.” Trump “cannot possibly know what he is permitted to say, and what he is not.”

    — It’s all about the appeal, part III. The substance of an appeal is irrelevant, as long as the appeal can be dragged out past the November 2024 election. It is easy to imagine a “throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” approach to buy time. An appeals court could just as easily applaud the two judges for showing restraint when they might have thrown Trump in jail for contempt. No matter, as long as it all chews up the space until the election.

    Trump looks like a man who simply does not care what happens with the current trials, or any of the upcoming others. He is both convinced the system is fully unfair and equally aware that the more trouble he seems to get into the faster his poll numbers rise. Each courtroom defeat, small and procedural or a full-on guilty verdict, simply fans the flames for rally crowds. The cash penalties levied by Judges Engoron and Chutkan for violating gag orders have little meaning.

    But Trump actually being jailed for violating a gag order would grant him official martyr status. Within a week of his release Trump will be comparing himself to the jailed Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, freedom fighters all. He could then literally test an earlier boast by shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters, or perhaps with MAGA cheers in the background simply flipping off one of the judges who dare seek to decide his fate.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump