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Trump's Truth Social page is a riot of witness intimidation
Even his lawyers can't really defend it.
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On August 6, Alabama man Arthur Ray Hanson, II, left a voicemail threatening Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis with violence if she charged Donald Trump with interference in the 2020 election.
“I would be very afraid if I were you because you can’t be around people all the time that are going to protect you,” he said on the recorded call. “When you charge Trump on that fourth indictment, anytime you’re alone, be looking over your shoulder … What you put out there, bitch, comes back at you ten times harder, and don’t ever forget it.”
That same day, Hanson left a similar message for Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat:
If you think you gonna take a mugshot of my President Donald Trump and it’s gonna be ok, you gonna find out that after you take that mugshot, some bad shit’s probably gonna happen to you … I’m warning you right now before you fuck up your life and get hurt real bad … whether you got a fucking badge or not ain’t gonna help you none … you gonna get fucked up you keep fucking with my president.
The threats didn’t work, and on August 24, Trump surrendered at the Fulton County Jail. Trump went on to raise $7.1 million off his mugshot, but Hanson fared much worse. This week he was indicted for using interstate communications to threaten to kidnap or injure a person.
RELATED FROM PN: Trump gag order: It’s a matter of when, not if, he violates it
The day before Hanson’s calls to officials in Georgia, a Texas woman named Abigail Jo Shry left a voicemail for federal judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over Trump’s election interference case in DC.
"Hey you stupid slave n----- …. You are in our sights, we want to kill you,” she said. "If Trump doesn't get elected in 2024, we are coming to kill you. So tread lightly, bitch ... You will be targeted personally, publicly, your family, all of it."
Shry was indicted in September and, like Hanson, was charged with making threats via interstate communication. But while Hanson and Shry were exceptionally careless about covering their tracks, they certainly weren’t alone in menacing the targets of Trump’s ire. Judges and prosecutors in every one of Trump’s cases have been subjected to threats and harassment for simply doing their jobs.
Trump’s lawyers flail to defend the indefensible
And yet, on September 25, Trump’s lawyer John Lauro argued against the special counsel’s motion for a gag order in the DC case, calling it “bare speculation that third parties might interact with the individuals President Trump comments on.”
This was news to Judge Chutkan, who has been protected by extra security for months thanks to Shry and the goons who read Trump’s social media feed. On October 17 she imposed a limited order restricting Lauro’s client from targeting witnesses, courthouse staff (but not the judge herself), and prosecutors in the DC case.
Trump immediately appealed to the DC Circuit and requested that Judge Chutkan stay her ruling until the appellate court could weigh in on the “breathtakingly overbroad” order based on the “supposed ‘threats’ and ‘harassment’” occasioned by Trump’s vitriol. The court granted an administrative stay for the parties to brief the matter, which Trump celebrated by firing off a volley of social media posts attacking his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who was at that moment testifying in the New York civil fraud case — just in case Judge Chutkan harbored any doubt as to how Trump will conduct himself toward witnesses in her own courtroom if given free rein.
Trump was already under an existing gag order in New York after he posted a picture of Justice Arthur Engoron’s law clerk on Truth Social and falsely claimed she was Sen. Chuck Schumer’s girlfriend.
He’s now violated that New York order twice. On October 20, Justice Engoron fined him $5,000 for failing to take the offending post off his personal website after deleting it from Truth Social. Five days later, the former president walked out of the courtroom and complained to reporters about “a person who is very partisan sitting alongside of [the judge], perhaps even much more partisan than he is.” Justice Engoron put Trump on the stand, where he testified that he’d been referring to his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who was 15 feet away and separated by a barrier. Noting that the law clerk is the person who actually sits next to him (with no barrier), Justice Engoron ruled that “the witness is not credible” and fined him $10,000.
“I’m very protective of my staff, as I believe I should be,” he went on. “I don’t want anybody killed.”
But before Trump’s lawyers could draft their appeal of the New York sanctions, Trump fired off a manic attack on Mark Meadows, after ABC News reported he’d testified to the grand jury in DC under a grant of immunity.
“I don’t think Mark Meadows would lie about the Rigged and Stollen [sic] 2020 Presidential Election merely for getting IMMUNITY against Prosecution (PERSECUTION!) by Deranged Prosecutor, Jack Smith,” he rambled, in a long post which ended by describing cooperating witnesses as “weaklings and cowards, and so bad for the future our [sic] Failing Nation.”
Trump’s lawyers cannot have been pleased that their client seized on the administrative stay to demonstrate that, without guardrails, he’d behave as badly in DC as he has in New York. But they swallowed hard and gamely explained to the court that actually it was the government's fault that their client had been forced to intimidate a witness on social media.
“Recent leaks regarding Meadows’ alleged testimony, which received wide media attention, demonstrate why the Gag Order is unworkable,” they huffed. “If the Gag order had been in effect, President Trump would have been unable to respond to, or rebut, the false claims about his interactions with his former chief of staff — an issue that is important to many Americans in connection with the 2024 election.”
It should be noted that they buried this argument in a footnote, perhaps hoping that Judge Chutkan wouldn’t notice their brazen defense of a statement clearly designed to discourage a witness from testifying against him. They may also have hoped she wouldn’t notice them tacitly agreeing that Trump had been perfectly able to figure out what he was allowed to say before and after the order was stayed.
“The statement singles out a foreseeable witness for purposes of characterizing his potentially unfavorable testimony as a ‘lie’” and “could readily be interpreted as an attempt to influence or prevent the witness’s participation in this case,” she wrote as she reimposed the gag, adding that Lauro’s argument proves that “far from being being arbitrary or standardless, the Order’s prohibition on ‘targeting’ statements can be straightforwardly understood and applied.” (On Thursday night, Trump’s lawyers filed an emergency motion asking the DC Circuit to do what Judge Chutkan would not. They demanded a stay of the trial court’s gag order, permitting Trump to continue his wave of witness intimidation while the appellate court considers the matter.)
Moreover, Chutkan took issue with Lauro’s protest that the court cited “no evidence supporting its findings of risks of harassment and witness intimidation.”
“The evidence is in the record; Defendant simply fails to acknowledge it,” she said, referencing the government’s brief which quotes officials in Georgia and Arizona testifying to Congress about the waves of harassment they suffered every time Trump hate-posted about them because they refused to steal President Biden’s electoral votes.
“Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed,” warned Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling in a press conference on December 1, 2020, noting that "a 20-something tech in Gwinnett County today has death threats and a noose put out saying he should be hung for treason because he was transferring a report on batches from an EMS to a county computer so he could read it.”
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Prosecutors highlighted Atlanta poll workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, who testified that they had to flee their homes after Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani falsely accused them of counting thousands of fraudulent ballots on election night. Several people who harassed the women are charged in the Fulton County RICO indictment, but that doesn’t undo the harm. Three years later, Freeman and Moss still fear for their safety.
And just in case anyone managed to miss it, Trump’s public statements convinced his followers to descend on the nation’s Capitol, screaming “Hang Mike Pence!” as they demanded to overthrow the government.
Can’t stop, won’t stop
In short, it’s very clear that Trump’s words have devastating real world consequences for his targets. There's always a chance that Trump could eke out a partial victory on appeal, with the DC circuit scaling back the scope of the gag order insofar as it bans criticism of the prosecutors. But this ruling is not going to be reversed because the appellate court disagrees that Trump’s outbursts pose substantial risk of intimidating witnesses and prejudicing the case.
And as if to reinforce the point, before the order had even appeared online Sunday night, Trump had several toes over the line trying to violate it with a Truth Social post in which he blasted former Attorney General Bill Barr as “a LOSER” and a “Dumb, Weak, Slow Moving, Lethargic, Gutless, and Lazy, a RINO WHO COULDN’T DO THE JOB.”
Barr will be witness in the DC trial, and Trump’s post is arguably an attack on his credibility in violation of the court’s order. Trump’s lawyers argue that there’s no risk of Barr being intimidated — he’s a big boy with enough money to take care of himself. But that’s not the case for less powerful witnesses, as well as the line attorneys and courtroom personnel who find themselves under attack by the MAGA mob.
The bottom line is that Trump’s invective on social media has real world consequences, and courts are right to impose limits on his speech to protect the integrity of his trials and the safety of witnesses and civil servants.
That’s it for this week
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