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Judge Skeptical About Request to Limit Trump Statements on F.B.I.

Judge Skeptical About Request to Limit Trump Statements on F.B.I.

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The federal judge overseeing former President Donald J. Trump’s classified documents case posed tough questions on Monday to prosecutors who have asked her to bar him from making inflammatory statements that might endanger any F.B.I. agents involved in the case.

At a contentious hearing in Federal District Court in Fort Pierce, Fla., the judge, Aileen M. Cannon, seemed disinclined to impose new conditions on Mr. Trump that would limit what he could say about the F.B.I.

Prosecutors had asked for the restrictions last month after Mr. Trump made blatantly false statements, claiming that federal agents were “locked & loaded ready to take me out” when they carried out a search two years ago at Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida. The court-authorized search was a crucial element of the government’s investigation, leading to the discovery of more than 100 classified documents that Mr. Trump kept after leaving office.

The hearing was the latest clash between Mr. Trump’s lawyers and prosecutors in the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith. It centered on a knotty issue that has now cropped up in several of the former president’s legal cases: how to balance Mr. Trump’s right to attack the government — even falsely — against shielding the participants in the cases from threats of violence or harassment inspired by his incendiary remarks.

Judge Cannon put off answering that question for the moment, declining to join the other judges who have put restrictions on Mr. Trump’s speech in two of his criminal cases — in Washington and New York — and during his civil fraud trial in Manhattan.

But she expressed skepticism about the mechanism prosecutors want to use to curb Mr. Trump’s remarks in Florida.

They have asked Judge Cannon to change the terms of his bail to bar him from saying anything that might endanger agents working on the case. The judge, however, questioned whether they could show there was a “reasonable necessity” to impose the measures in order to protect the safety of the agents.

The dispute about Mr. Trump’s statements began in May when he falsely claimed on social media and in fund-raising appeals that the F.B.I. had authorized its agents to shoot him during the search of Mar-a-Lago. Prosecutors have asserted that the statements were a “grossly misleading” misinterpretation of an F.B.I. plan that actually set forth strict limitations on the use of deadly force for the agents that descended on the property.

Addressing Judge Cannon, David Harbach, one of Mr. Smith’s top deputies, said that Mr. Trump’s remarks about the F.B.I. were not only false but also dangerous. The danger, he added, was amplified by what he described as the “potent tool” of Mr. Trump’s Truth Social account, which the former president has often used to rile up millions of his supporters.

Judge Cannon, however, seemed to have a hard time discerning a direct connection between Mr. Trump’s messages and any palpable threats to agents working on the documents case. She also noted that she had already redacted the agents’ names from public filings, a measure she took to protect them against harm.

But when she seemed to question Mr. Harbach’s contention that the names of some of the agents had already been made public and that other agents had faced threats in the earlier remarks by Mr. Trump, he visibly lost his patience.

Ultimately, Judge Cannon scolded Mr. Harbach from the bench — the second time she has done so in the past two months.

“I don’t appreciate your tone,” she told him. “I think we have been here before. I expect decorum in this courtroom. If you’re not able to do that, I’m sure one of your colleagues could take your place.”

Echoing Judge Cannon’s concerns, Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, noted that the government had failed to present evidence that agents in the documents case had faced any threats because of the former president’s statements.

Mr. Blanche also argued that restrictions on Mr. Trump’s speech would be particularly onerous given that he is scheduled to debate President Biden on Thursday night for the first time in this election cycle.

“It would be extremely chilling to President Trump and what he’s allowed to say,” Mr. Blanche said.

The discussion about limiting Mr. Trump’s remarks came after an earlier portion of the hearing during which Judge Cannon seemed intrigued by a separate issue: how the government has paid for the work that Mr. Smith and his team have performed over the past year and a half.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming that Mr. Smith was improperly appointed and funded. Judge Cannon heard arguments about Mr. Smith’s appointment as special counsel on Friday.



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