Special counsel obtains search warrant for Donald Trump’s Twitter account
(CNN) — The special counsel investigation into Donald Trump secured a search warrant of the former president’s Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, according to a newly unsealed court filing.
The search was so secret that Twitter was initially barred from telling Trump the search warrant had been obtained for his account, and the company, now known as “X,” was fined $350,000 because it delayed producing the records sought under the search warrant.
The search warrant special counsel Jack Smith obtained sought “data and records related” to Trump’s account, and ultimately, the platform was allowed to share some information about the search warrant with the former president.
The special counsel’s office, which is now working on the criminal case against Trump in District of Columbia District Court related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, sought the warrant in January 2023.
Twitter ultimately produced the records, according to the filing, now public in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Court was worried about giving Trump chance to destroy evidence
Twitter and special counsel Jack Smith’s office spent several months litigating the question of whether Trump should be told about the search warrant.
The dispute came to light on Wednesday when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals unsealed a decision upholding how the district court had handled the dispute, including its imposition of sanctions on the company, which missed a deadline for producing the information by three days.
The district court, according to the D.C. Circuit’s opinion, “found that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that disclosing the warrant to former President Trump ‘would seriously jeopardize the ongoing investigation’ by giving him “an opportunity to destroy evidence, change patterns of behavior, (or) notify confederates.”
The district court also concluded the nondisclosure order was necessary because it “found reason to believe that the former president would ‘flee from prosecution,’” a footnote says.
“The government later acknowledged, however, that it had ‘errantly included flight from prosecution as a predicate’ in its application,” the footnote said. “The district court did not rely on risk of flight in its ultimate analysis.”
The platform – which rebranded as “X” over the course of its legal dispute with prosecutors – did not object producing the records Smith sought, but argued that the ban on informing Trump of the search warrant violated the First Amendment and the Stored Communications Act, a law that governs how third party internet platforms can be compelled to turn over user records.
Over the course of litigation, the nondisclosure order was amended to allow Twitter to “notify the former President of the existence and contents of the warrant,” but information about the case agent on the investigation was to be withheld.
Prosecutors had changed their posture to allow for some disclosure “because ‘additional information’ about investigations of the former President (that became) publicly available’ after the nondisclosure order was issued,” the ruling said.
Court battle has played out secretly for months
There had been indications at the courthouse of a sealed legal battle between the special counsel’s office and a major tech company. But until Wednesday’s release of the D.C. Circuit ruling, most information about the case was shrouded with secrecy.
The appellate ruling, which was written by Circuit Judge Florence Pan and joined by Circuit Judges J. Michelle Childs and Nina Pillard, was issued in July. The version unsealed Wednesday had been modified for public release.
It said that Smith’s office had “difficulties” when it first attempted to serve Twitter with the search warrant and nondisclosure order.
Pan and Childs were nominated by President Joe Biden; Pillard by former President Barack Obama.
Prosecutors first attempted to serve Twitter with the warrant through their website for legal requests on Jan. 17, 2023, “only to find out that the website was inoperative,” the ruling says.
Prosecutors successfully contacted and served Twitter through that same website two days later.
The next week, however, prosecutors contacted Twitter’s lawyer to check on the status of their compliance with the search warrant. Twitter’ s counsel stated that she “had not heard anything about (the) (w)arrant,” according to the order.
By the first week of February, Twitter had asked the D.C. district court to vacate the nondisclosure order, arguing that they should be able to tell Trump about the warrant. A district judge denied that request, and Twitter turned over the records on Feb. 9.
In March, Twitter asked the D.C. appeals court to reverse the district court’s opinion upholding the nondisclosure order. Prosecutors amended the order in June to allow for some information to be provided to Trump.