WASHINGTON – President Trump’s Justice Department secretly secured a grand jury subpoena last year to attempt to identify the person behind a Twitter account dedicated to mocking Representative Devin Nunes from California, according to a newly unsealed court document.
But Twitter fought the subpoena, as well as an associated gag order barring the company from speaking publicly. Twitter executives have expressed skepticism about whether the Justice Department could abuse federal criminal law enforcement power to retaliate against a critic of Mr. Nunes, a Republican who is a close ally of Mr. Trump, in violation of the First Amendment.
Ultimately, according to a person familiar with the matter, the Justice Department withdrew the subpoena this spring, after President Biden took office.
What went on behind the summons remains murky. The filing – a motion to remove the subpoena and lift the gag order that Twitter filed in March – shows the Justice Department sent a request to the company on Nov. 24 to provide information of identification on the user. @NunesAlt.
Twitter appears to have immediately distrusted the legitimacy of the request. The user of this account, according to the file, “appears to be engaged in clear First Amendment activity, discussing positions on current events, government policies, and one elected official – Congressman Nunes.”
The file provided examples of some of the account’s tweets, such as a photograph of Mr. Nunes with text superimposed on his face: “Believe in conspiracy theories. Even though there is no proof.
As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee until Democrats took control of the chamber after the 2018 midterm elections, Mr. Nunes used his position to assert his rights who supported Mr. Trump’s claim that the Russia investigation was a “deep state” plot against him.
Twitter’s file also indicated that Mr. Nunes and his attorney separately filed a series of lawsuits in an attempt to expose pseudonymous social media users who criticized him, including an account claiming to be the congressman cow and the @NunesAlt account.
When Twitter demanded an explanation from the Justice Department, according to the record, the government said the subpoena was part of a criminal investigation into a possible violation of federal law that made it a felony. interstate communications to threaten to harm someone. But the government declined to report one particular tweet that posed a threat.
The company’s file asked the judge handling the case to take a look at the Justice Department’s motives for going after the user.
As the custodian of government-sought private credentials, Twitter is concerned that the subpoena may not be supported by a legitimate law enforcement objective, and therefore there may be no need – let alone a pressing need – for the government. to unmask the user, ”a Twitter lawyer wrote in the court petition.
He continued, “As such, Twitter requests that the court conduct a thorough analysis of the government’s basis for issuing the subpoena to determine whether the subpoena violates the First Amendment and should be rescinded.”
The grand jury summons had been obtained by the United States attorney’s office for the District of Columbia. At the time, the office was headed on an interim basis by Michael R. Sherwin, who had been installed by Attorney General William P. Barr.
A spokesperson for that office did not respond to a request for comment or explanation, especially if the underlying investigation remained open. The text of the summons, which was attached to Twitter’s court file, suggested the investigation was being led by Capitol Police, who protect members of Congress.
A spokesperson for Mr Nunes did not respond to a request for comment.
The person who manages the @NunesAlt account seemed surprised by the deposit, write in a message Monday afternoon that there was “nothing remarkable about me” and added, “So why am I being sued by a US congressman? Why would the DOJ ever target me? Is it the mean tweets and the bad memes?
Twitter said in a statement that it is “committed to protecting the freedom of expression of those who use our service. We have extensive experience and take seriously the trust placed in us to work to protect the privacy of individuals on Twitter. “
Kate conger, Katie benner and Nicolas fandos contribution to reports.
Trump’s Justice Department tried to use grand jury to identify Nunes critic on Twitter
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