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The new gag order against Trump, briefly explained

Why a gag order has been issued — and the penalties Trump could face if he violates it.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he arrives for his civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court on October 17, 2023, in New York City.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Former President Donald Trump will now face certain restrictions on one of his signature pastimes: attacking his perceived enemies.

On Monday, federal judge Tanya Chutkan issued a partial gag order that prevents Trump from going after witnesses, prosecutors, and court personnel who are involved in the federal case examining his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. The order follows a request from special prosecutor Jack Smith, who is leading investigations into Trump, and comes after Trump has previously denigrated Smith’s family and described him as “deranged.” Chutkan has not yet specified exactly how the order will be enforced or what punishment Trump could face if he decides to violate it.

In general, however, disobeying a gag order is usually seen as what’s known as contempt of court — essentially, willfully disobeying a court order. In the past, those who’ve been found in contempt of court have faced detention or a fine.

As Chutkan explained, the ruling is aimed at ensuring that Trump doesn’t intimidate staff and witnesses, and to make sure that his external statements don’t affect how the case is presented. Additionally, the order expresses worries that Trump’s statements could stoke violence and harassment toward the targets he mentions.

“This is not about whether I like the language Mr. Trump uses,” Chutkan said when announcing the order. “This is about language that presents a danger to the administration of justice.”

Trump has responded by arguing that the court is attempting to restrict his freedom of speech and targeting him. “I’m a candidate that’s running for office and I’m not allowed to speak,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday. He has said his team intends to appeal the order.

Like most gag orders, Chutkan’s aims to strike a balance between barring Trump from intimidating participants in the case and curtailing his First Amendment rights to free speech. Additionally, it tries to ensure the courts don’t affect the ongoing Republican primary and general election. For example, Trump is able to continue criticizing former Vice President Mike Pence in the context of the primary, but is not able to address the role he plays in the 2020 election case. The gag order does not prevent Trump from continuing to levy attacks on the Justice Department, Judge Chutkan, or President Joe Biden.

The order only adds to Trump’s legal baggage as he navigates four criminal indictments, including two at the federal level and two at the state level. And it isn’t even the only gag order he’s under. He was ordered to moderate his statements in his New York civil fraud trial after attacking a member of the judge in that case’s staff.

What happens if Trump violates his gag order?

Practically, the gag order means Trump isn’t able to personally attack individuals like Smith or members of court staff, unless he wants to face a potential penalty which could include a fine or even jail time.

If Trump were to breach the order, he would be considered in contempt of court, an offense that comes with its own standard set of penalties. Federal law outlines the procedure for dealing with contempt of court, but what would happen if Trump ignored the gag rule would likely depend on exactly how he did so and who he targeted. Chutkan could, in theory, decide on a punishment herself; however, a separate contempt trial could also be held. In either case, punishments could range from a $1,000 fine to six months in prison.

Previously, New York law meant Trump was required to pay $110,000 in fines after being found in contempt of court after he declined to comply with a subpoena in the New York civil investigation of his business practices.

“Gag orders are typically enforced with contempt sanctions, which include fines or imprisonment,” Columbia Law professor Daniel Richman told Vox. “This would be available in Trump’s case.” Additionally, Richman notes, the judge could potentially revise Trump’s bail arrangements to include detention, monitoring arrangements, and possible limitations to social media usage.