CNN — A federal appeals panel appears inclined to restore the limited gag order in former President Donald Trump’s federal election subversion case, but may loosen some restrictions so he can more directly criticize special counsel Jack Smith.

A three-judge panel of the DC US Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Monday in the closely watched case, which stems from Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and obstruct the lawful transfer of power. He pleaded not guilty.

None of the three judges embraced Trump’s claims that the gag order should be wiped away for good because it is a “categorically unprecedented” violation of his free speech rights. Yet they also posed sharp questions to prosecutors as they tried to find the boundary of where intense campaign trail rhetoric crosses the line of undermining a criminal case.

“We certainly want to make sure that the criminal trial process and its integrity and its truth-finding function are protected, but we ought to use a careful scalpel here and not step into really sort of skewing the political arena,” Circuit Judge Patricia Millett said.

The limited gag order from District Judge Tanya Chutkan – which was temporarily frozen by the appeals panel when they agreed to hear the case – restricts Trump’s ability to directly attack Smith, members of his team, court staff or potential trial witnesses. He is allowed to criticize the Justice Department, proclaim his innocence and argue that the case is “politically motivated.”

The appellate judges, who are all Democratic appointees, heard the case on an expedited schedule and are expected to issue a ruling soon, but the timing is unclear.

Trump political rhetoric can’t ‘derail’ the case, judge says

Millett repeatedly challenged Trump attorney D. John Sauer, saying it was important to draw a distinction between purely political campaign rhetoric and speech intended to subvert the legal process.

“First of all, we’re not shutting down everyone who speaks,” Millett said. “This is only affecting the speech temporarily during a criminal trial process by someone who has been indicted as a felon. … No one here is threatening the First Amendment broadly.”

Sauer argued that the restrictions on all criminal defendants against illegal speech like blatant witness tampering were more than enough to protect the integrity of the case. He said the gag order infringed on Trump’s “core political speech.”

Cutting him off, Millett said: “Labeling it ‘core political speech’ begs the question of whether it is in fact political speech or whether it is political speech aimed at derailing or corrupting the criminal justice process. You can’t simply label it that and conclude your balancing tests that way. We have to balance.”

Sauer responded by arguing that the speech potentially being restricted by the gag order is “inextricably entwined with the issues that are being publicly debated in the context of the campaign.”

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