Picasso’s Guernica reproduced in Guernica City Hall in Germany (photo by Moleskine [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

About the author : paulwesslundwriter

Paul Wesslund spent a career writing and editing for newspapers and in the energy industry. When he retired in 2015 he went on to write two books on how kindness and integrity leads to success, wrote a monthly energy column, became an environmental organizer, and got involved in the leadership of his church.

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Gag order request offers evidence of how mean we are

Deep and profound writing that reveals larger truths about ourselves doesn’t always come as a novel or a poem. Last month an insightful essay on the state of American society came in the innovative literary form of a legal brief.

On February 22 the New York District Attorney’s office filed a motion to restrict what could be said outside the courtroom in the upcoming Donald Trump/Stormy Daniels trial.

Seems straightforward. These kinds of requests for “restricting extrajudicial statements” are common enough that they go by a term us non-lawyers can better understand—a gag order.

Death threats and racial epithets

But this one, seeking to order Trump not to make inflammatory statements about the trial, is striking. And not just because of the super-high profile involvement of a former president and an adult film actress.

What sets this document apart is the vivid picture it paints of how sick our national dialogue has gotten: death threats, the vilest racial epithets, a former president of the United States posting on social media that a federal employee “should go to HELL.”

A former president posting last year that Special Prosecutor Jack Smith “should go to HELL” is just one hundreds of examples of how sick our national dialogue has gotten.

A former president posting last year that Special Prosecutor Jack Smith “should go to HELL” is just one of hundreds of examples of how sick our national dialogue has gotten.

All that’s discouraging. But the scary part is that the prominence and relentlessness of this completely unacceptable behavior threatens to make it acceptable. Outrageousness becomes just part of the background noise, hardening our hearts to meanness and cruelty.

Four years ago I blogged about how mean we’d become (and what we could do about it.) We’ve gotten worse

We are broadcasting to ourselves, our children, and the world, that this is how we think people ought to act.

The District Attorney’s court filing holds up a mirror to the normalization of what has become a macabre public circus. We should choose to look.

A refresher on the trial and gag order: the New York District Attorney is accusing Trump of paying Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about an affair so that it wouldn’t hurt his chances of getting elected president in 2016. That case is scheduled to go to trial March 25.

The motion takes 30 pages to ask the court that will be holding the trial to “issue a narrowly tailored order restricting certain prejudicial extrajudicial statements by defendant” (That would be Donald Trump.)

But it’s the 300 pages of exhibits following that request that elevate the motion to a literary masterpiece. Those exhibits tell the story of a people and how they deal with disputes, with a catalogue of cruelty and even violent self-righteousness.

Can a legal brief be a work of art?

Like the chapter in Moby Dick that’s essentially an unexpected description of all the types of whales, the District Attorney’s motion offers a variety of evidence to make the point that Trump inspires his followers to threaten and disrupt his trials. Those exhibits include:

  • 59 pages of Trump social media posts (including the one that says special prosecutor Jack Smith should go to hell)
  • 52 pages of affidavits by jurors in the 2019 Roger Stone trial who felt threatened by Trump and his supporters
  • 8 photos of guns posted on social media from people referring to them as ways to eliminate people involved in Trump trials, or just to get rid of Democrats in general
  • 40 pages of a deposition of Georgia election worker Ruby Freeman on how she was threatened and harassed out of her house (the FBI recommended she leave after reviewing the threats against her) as well as losing her business after an avalanche of hateful accusations that she interfered with the election.
  • 7 transcripts of obscene, racist and antisemitic voice mails left on the phone of the office of the judge presiding over the recently completed trial in which Trump was found guilty of illegally inflating the value of his business

And then there’s this social media post sent to New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg (parentheticals added by the investigators of the threat):

Heading to New York to fulfill my dream of iradicating [sic] another of George Soros two-but political hach [sic] DAs.

I’ll be waiting in the courthouse parking garage with my suppressed Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm to smoke a radical fool prosecutor that should never have been elected.

I want to stand over Bragg and put a nice hole in his forehead with my 9mm and watch him twitch as a drop of blood oozes from the hole as his life ebbs away to hell!!


The purpose of all these exhibits in the legal brief is to convince a judge that Trump’s comments outside the courtroom really do interfere with the legal process and should be restricted.

But I see in this legal brief a work of art—a disturbing and upsetting kind of art that puts on display a society of leaders and followers who celebrate hatred, viciousness, and violence.

I hesitate to compare this legal document to the greatest artistic works of all time, but I see a similarity to such monumental achievements as Harper Lee’s racial justice commentary To Kill a Mockingbird and Picasso’s anti-war Guernica. The book, the painting, and the legal brief all make us look at the worst of who we are.

What they don’t do is tell us what to do about it.

That’s up to us.